Being Seen

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.

Out loud.

To other people.

Who are writers.

Yikes.

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.

I did.

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.

18 thoughts on “Being Seen”

  1. Well done again, Alicia! You have such a great honesty and energy to your writing…vulnerable is the word that comes to mind. Kudos again to you. Since I read your one-sentence teaser about Brian, I am forced, by my appetite for truth, to buy the book.

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    1. Thanks, Ed. If you’re nice to me, I’ll even sign my story in your copy of the anthology. Ouch! I think I just bumped my increasing bigger head on the ceiling. 😉

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      1. Fair enough, Ed. Although I think you have to be nice being that you’re a PASTOR and all! 😉

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      2. Touche’ webmaster Alicia. I still think the burden of niceness rests on the congregant (you). Pastors are allowed to appear aloof, mysterious and uninterested, the fig leaves of the trade. I still might ask for an autograph, but any further attempts by you to put me in my place will result in me playing the “rejection” card…and I don’t think either of us wants that. 😀 (not sure how to do a face, but I tried 😉
        BTW… I know this isn’t the right reply spot, well I’ll go the right spot.

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    1. Thanks, Lynn. Amazing things are happening in my life right now and I’m so grateful. Hope your life is full of wonder as well, friend.

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  2. Alicia,
    I’m happy to read this here. Your writing in the book and on this blog are beautiful. I am happy to know that you’ve enjoyed the book.
    –Dan Boster
    Editor, What Teaching Means

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    1. Dan, I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be a voice in this anthology. It’s really a stellar collection and I’m proud to be one story among many.

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  3. I love what you wrote here. I am also a fellow of the CWP–Cal State Northridge. You’ve reminded me of a story I want to tell, and I thank you for that. I very much want to travel to Africa to work with children. Will you be going to Uganda again in the future? Room for one more??
    Gail Nettels
    Woodland Hills, CA

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    1. Hi, Gail,
      It’s always a delight to meet another Writing Project fellow. Welcome. 🙂 Yes, do write that story. Don’t let it slip away. Write it and then share it. Regarding my adventure to Uganda, I don’t know if I will return. It’s my first trip to Africa and while I have a feeling it won’t be my last, I can’t say for sure. Yet. 😉 There is always room for more, so start saving those pennies and let’s make your dream come to fruition.

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  4. Hi Alicia,
    I loved your post and instantly subscribed to receive all of them! When you were given the assignment to write about the student you’ve not been able to get out of your head, I thought of mine. He, too, was a child that showed me what it meant to pay attention to each child. If only I could go back in time! Keep up the good work and have a grand adventure in Africa.
    I hope you visit my blog post today. It’s about bicycling to meet my maker!

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    1. Thanks, Gayle. I read your post and definitely related! I hope you write the story of your student, too. Stories from our classroom are the most important and most overlooked form of teacher research. These are the stories we must be brave enough to share. 🙂

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  5. Your story is a beautiful way to open the collection… the first of many I hope you will write. LOVE the book and your writing!

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    1. Thanks, Penny. It’s so kind of you to stop by and say so. I’m in Northern Uganda right now working with teens at Restore Leadership Academy. I’m helping them write a collection of stories. We begin writing tomorrow and I’m about to jump out of my skin in anticipation! I can’t wait to see what universal truths about writing emerge here. I know I’m going to learn a lot and that I’ll have a blast writing with these amazing kids!

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