This September 11, I found myself sitting in a circle with thirteen teenage writers who were too young to remember the events that have made this a day of national mourning in the United States. These young people are the Appomattox Regional Governor's School's class of 2019 literary arts students, and most of them met for the first time a week ago.
Having never taught the introductory creative writing class, I worried. Would I do a good enough job teaching them the fundamentals? Could I help them to build a community, to push and support each other through these next four years together? Would I bore them?
Today, I asked them to write to a simple prompt that I borrowed with gratitude from Valley Haggard: "Right now I am..."
I let them know that they didn't need to write about themselves; the prompt could take them anywhere, and they should follow without judgment. They didn't have to share if they weren't ready. I told them that this prompt had left me in tears (messy, gross, ugly tears) over the summer--in front of strangers.
I feared that, on the second day of class, they wouldn't feel ready to share. But some hands went up. They shared writing that astonished me with its form and uniqueness and voice.
When they began to apologize that their writing wouldn't be as good as the preceding writers, I scolded them. Don't apologize. Every one of you has something special to offer. And all of these are first drafts.
One girl shared something personal and held her hands over her eyes to cover her tears. The girl sitting next to her, someone she did not know eight days ago, reached out to embrace her. Other students began to weep with her, for her, and we praised her bravery. Their teacher cried a little, too.
Other pieces made us laugh. Some made us think.
Another student wrote about her journey, about what she had overcome, and that right now, she felt beautiful.
When one of her peers said, "First of all, we are all beautiful," my heart broke open. More than anything, this is what I want my students to know so that they can walk through their days, unafraid to show their beauty, unafraid to seek the beauty in others. And in their first week of high school, they were teaching this lesson to themselves.
When I told them later that I didn't want to share my writing because I didn't want to waste their time, I wasn't trying to demean my own work. I literally didn't think we had time to finish the lesson.
Don't apologize! they yelled.
They learn fast.
They are so young, so talented, so courageous, and somehow, I get to write with them.
They are deepening the beauty in our world--our perilous, fragile, magnificent world--one word at a time.