In the early summer of 2008, I found myself at a pre-retreat with the Northern California Writing Project. I sat in a circle of strangers, many of whom would become dear friends. But I didn’t know that then as I tapped my foot against the leg of my chair and tried to ignore just how much nervous sweat was trickling from my armpits.
It was my first encounter with The Writing Project and I promised myself two things: I promised I would stick to my diet. Secondly, I promised myself that any time the facilitators asked someone to read a piece of writing aloud, I would volunteer. I kept one of those two promises and let me tell you, that brownie cake was worth every bite.
My promise to volunteer to read my writing aloud came out of a two-fold desire. I desperately wanted to overcome my fear of public speaking. More importantly I wanted to get the most out of the retreat as possible. I’d never been to a writing retreat before and after seeing the ever-increasing sweat rings darkening my shirt, I wasn’t sure the facilitators would ever invite me back. I knew that getting the most out of the weekend meant stepping out of my comfort zone, clearing my throat, and reading some of my writing.
To other people.
Who are writers.
One afternoon the director said to the lot of us, “Write the story of the student you will never forget, the story that keeps you up at night, the story that you still think about.”
In that moment, I knew just the student, just the story. One so painful that I’d not spoken of it before, let alone put it on paper. I put my pen to paper and began to write about the student who broke my heart and made me get real about teaching. I wrote with unflinching honesty. I wrote with a flame that left me singed and raw at the end of each writing session.
I wrote the story that visits me in the still minutes of sleepless nights. And when it came time to read aloud, my own trembling voice gave voice to his story, my story: the story of how I failed to see the real him. I wrote about how that failure taught me what it means to be a teacher and what it means to see, really see, my students.
I worked on that piece for the rest of the summer and throughout the following school year. In the summer of 2009, The Writing Project sent me to a retreat in the spare desert of Arizona. I took this piece out again, fine tuning it-adding a word here, deleting words there, restructuring paragraphs until it was finished. Actually finished. At that retreat I put on my big girl pants and some extra deodorant and showed it to an editor. He encouraged me to submit it to a certain professional journal.
It was rejected.
Time and again it was rejected.
It was rejected enough times that I stopped submitting it and left it in a dark corner to mold or do whatever misfit pieces of writing do when abandoned.
Last year, the director of the Northern California Writing Project forwarded a call for submissions to me. It was a call for teachers to tell their stories in an anthology. I flipped through my writing samples and decided to send out that same piece one last time. And if it wasn’t chosen, I’d retire it, sound in the knowledge that it had served its purpose, even if it never saw the light of day again.
You can imagine my shock when I received a letter back from the editors that my piece had been chosen. Not only had it been chosen, but it would be the first story featured in the book. I just about fainted. I placed the letter in the place of honor-on my refrigerator, of course- and waited with anticipation for my story to make its debut.
Last week a package arrived in the mail. I recognized the return address immediately and tore the brown envelope open. And there it was-the book with my story. I’d held that story in my heart for years and now I was holding it in my hands. Not only that, but other teachers have held it in their hands and recognized their own experiences within mine. The most exciting thing is that after reading my story and others featured in this book, teachers are putting pencil to paper and writing their own stories. Stories of the student they will never forget. Stories they think about in the still minutes of sleepless nights.
When I lay in bed at night, cloaked in the quiet of my own house, I think of this little boy who taught me about what it means to really see my students. I pull the covers under my chin and I fall back asleep, grateful that after all these years his story is finally being seen.