I sat down last weekend to try to write a grad speech, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to. Grad speeches are supposed to be about looking ahead and achieving dreams, but I couldn’t do it. I was just too grumpy.
So for you, my lovely grads, welcome, for family and friends, kick off your shoes, tuck up your legs because Ms. Saas is in the mood for a story…
Last Friday my grade 11/12 Creative Writing kids and I spent the afternoon in Moose Jaw. It was day four, which meant it was Place Based learning day. The day when we spend the afternoon in the field learning how our connections to place shape us as writers. It’s an in-depth author study, and we are the authors we choose to study.
So last Friday we spent the afternoon in a hay loft. And as we’ve discovered this past year, it’s by challenging our perspectives we come to better understand our own stories. But last Friday I had a hard time listening to stories; I was just too grumpy. It was raining and there was no hay. The whole afternoon wasn’t going according to plan.
As we sat around a big green blanket, surrounded by mouse droppings and dust, eating lunch – with Cassidy already nagging me to leave – the grads stated chatting: Can our world be divided into two groups, those who are assholes and those who are not?
Cole sat across from me, his shoulders straight and his jaw tight. His eyes were shining, but not sparkling. Later that afternoon, Cole reflected that one of the things that means the most to him is not taking life too seriously unless he has too. There in the hay loft, Cole had a moment of seriousness.
Cole sat across from me very still, singularly certain in his belief in humanity’s goodness. While defending this belief, his posture and demeanour changed.
I often tell people that my dad is the kindest and best of men. Cole, in so many ways you remind me of my dad, the kindest, most loyal and best of men.
In our ELA class we share, and we share, and we share. And when we are done sharing, we share some more. Though Cole, you often refer to this process as both “Vomit” and “Tears of Sadness” it is you, Cole, that I have to ask to put down your pencil during sharing time, during instructing time.
For all your childish antics, and incessant tauntings and ridiculous games, when it comes down it Cole, you, of all your classmates, have shared the most. I am privileged to know you, to be privy to the meaning behind the truck metaphor. Someday, where ever your journey takes you – oh, I sure hope you’ll never put down your pencil;
In your words Cole: The roads finally started to dry up around June which was good because it was warm enough to go to the lake. I went there often by myself. Mom and dad were working; the first times I had gone alone. I wanted to be there all summer, but then haying started and the lake was all that was on my mind, though the hayfield was all that was on all the minds of the other guys. Mostly, I just wanted to be at the lake because Taylor was there.
So, while Cole sat sure the goodness of humankind, Cassidy was arguing for all its shades of grey. Her point was that people can change, that people can grow once they have found a deeper understanding.
Cassidy, my girl, sometimes I don’t even know you from the girl you where in September. Somehow you’ve made the decision to allow the rest of the world to know the brilliant story teller you keep locked away in your journal, lost in sunsets and hidden behind sweat pants.
Cass, I bet you’re hoping I won’t pull out your journal to read from it right now? Nah, I won’t. I’ll save that for Nadine, let her sweat a little.
Cass. At the start of the second term, you stated, “It’s like a mine field in this classroom.” And I agree – I’m sure yours is the only grade 12 class that has ever been put in time-out. But that mine field has proven purposeful, it has become your creative process. Cassidy, you have learned to dive into writing and editing with passion and ruthlessness.
Watching you take tough memoires and find in them your own universal truths has been both delightful and excruciating. I can’t wait to get updates from you when you’re at university, emails describing how you’re arguing for a just cause and helping others understand the universal truths that bind us all.
In your words Cassidy: I believe in Mom. I remember when my mom used to read me bedtime stories. I never listened to the words; I would listen to her voice. The familiar rhythmic voice would lull me into a cocoon of safety and comfort. She would warp one arm around me and turn the pages with the other. I couldn’t read or understand the letters strewn across the pages, but I remember Mom pointing at the pictures and her eyes flicking back and forth while she read. When she finished, she would close the book and tuck me in. She would flick off the light and say “Goodnight, I love you.” I would close my eyes and go to sleep.
On our way home from the hay loft last Friday, I asked Andrew what I was going to write in my grad speech. What could I possible share about these five young people? I’ve only known them since September. You paid me a great compliment with your response Andrew, “I think you know more about us than any other teacher.”
Andrew, your classmates and I are so grateful for your willingness to share and to laugh. This last year along side you we have eaten grass soup, nervously paced a hospital room, let twilight enfold around us and have gone tobogganing down basement stairs as soon as our parents left for church.
Yet Andrew, last Friday a great deal of my grumpiness was your fault.
Though being an English teacher can be a joy, being your English teacher and living up to your expectations has been one heck of a test. You ask so many tough questions.
In case you don’t know Andrew, it is you, above all my students, grades 9 & 10 alike – let that simmer a moment – who has stepped up most often this year to match my temper. And for that, Andrew, I thank you for inviting me into the ring!
You continue to ask hard questions of me, and that, in turn, has allowed me to ask them of you all, and most importantly, has allowed you to ask them of yourself. Andrew, my dear Andrew, let’s both of us, never forget the answers.
In your words Andrew:
“Will the defendant please rise.” The judge says gruffly, tired of this trial, showing no remorse.
Tears dwell in the corners of my eyes as he rises to face a surest fate.
He glances over at me with eyes I once held in my arms, the same eyes of a scared boy wanting his mother to check the closet for monsters. The same eyes now held by a man I do not know. I glance away, ashamed.
“By the order of the court, you are sentenced to life in prison.” I look back into the eyes of an imprisoned man, eyes shared with the boy who dropped his ice cream cone. Gasps and relief and empathy fill the room. Shackles bind him; men lead him down the walk of truths. I stand, head hanging low. I watch as feet scuffle past, feet that will never have freedom.
Last Friday we spent the last 40 minutes rushing through two quick reflective writing assignments. Nadine was gracious, though she sure was tired of being there. The next thing on Nadine’s to do list loomed before her, and if you know Nadine, B always follows A, and tanning always follows Place Based Learning afternoons. We were late and she needed to go – get a move on it Ms. Saas.
But learning doesn’t always work that way, and instead, Nadine held her paper and watched her classmates jump into the quick writing task. More than anyone else, the unconventional nature of my courses has been difficult for our Miss Nadine.
About four weeks ago I assigned a short writing assignment. I felt it wasn’t too difficult. Perhaps it was a bit more reflective than a memoire, but the grads had been constructing and deconstructing their beliefs for three months, so surely they were up for the task.
Nadine had a meltdown. She screeched, “Well, I don’t know what to write!” Her hoodie went up, she tossed a pencil at Cole, switched tables away from Kevin and Cole, and later both Mrs. MacLachlan and Mrs. Cobbe asked me what I’d done during ELA to our poor Nadine.
“I asked her to reflect.”
Nadine, that moment when you put your hoodie up was your best moment of creativity all year. I am not worried about you, Nadine. You are a student who knows how to self-manage your learning. Whether it’s asking to schedule time to edit writing assignments, look over scholarships or go through biology papers, you know how to take care of you. This is the biggest determining factor in success. And I have more than a dozen text messages from you that prove you’ll do beautifully.
Last September Nadine you were working on the rough draft of your memoire. You were writing about your Papa. You tried to read your draft aloud, but were too overcome to finish. You handed the manuscript over your shoulder to me and as I read your words I began to get to know you.
My lovely grads, there is a common thread that ties you together. It is how rooted you are in family and how focused you all are to staying connected to family no matter where your paths take you.
Nadine, last January I broke a promise to you. Do you remember? A week after winter break, I was reading your journal, sitting on the sofa with my daughter, with tears streaming down my face; I was sharing your journal entry with my girl.
Nadine, never forget that the remembrance assignment didn’t bother you because it’s hard for you to reflect, it bothered you because you’ve learned to reflect well, and you’ve learned to reflect beautifully.
In your words Nadine: This Christmas held a lot of firsts for my family. It was the first time I had to milk in the morning and afternoon, the first time we didn’t open all of our presents on Christmas morning, the first time there was only two kids out of four waking up on Christmas morning, although I know that was bound to happen sooner or later. Most importantly though, it was the first Christmas we spent without Papa. It was hard, but we all got through it. Christmas to me this year just felt like another day. Only one of my brothers was around, we didn’t open presents and we didn’t have a turkey dinner. But I think this year I finally learned what Christmas is all about: Family.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with my senior ELA courses, my students have to lead conferences 4 times a year. These quarterly student led conferences allow me the privilege to listen as my students share their successes with their parents. These conferences also allow me to get to know the families which my grads write about so beautifully and with such passion.
I should take this moment to apologise to both Kevin and his mom, Karen. I believe in sharing student’s success. It’s been a wonderful gift every day after writer’s workshop to zip into the staffroom and share the newest piece of brilliance that Kevin has created.
Yes, Kevin. You’ve survived both your mom and me. Kevin. My walking commentator. I can’t tell you how pleased I am that last Friday I used a word that you didn’t know. Perhaps teachers shouldn’t find joy in stumping their students, but for me, it’s simply hard enough keeping up with you.
I remember the first time you were brave enough to ask for an edit – after watching Cole go through and survive this process – for all of you who have heard rumour of the fierce edit, it’s purely fabrication; I am nothing but kind and generous during the writing process – Kevin, I remember reading your draft that first time and thinking, “What the heck am I supposed to do with this.”
What might I offer when my student writes better than I do? How on earth do I help my student edit? More importantly, how might I help him to grow?
But I’ve figured this out Kevin, since we’ve determined Cole is brilliant at metaphor, have him sort out your whole zombie thing…
I remember jotting down lines from your stories this year and sending them to other ELA teachers and to university professors because they are simply that fine.
Last winter I checked out an anthology from the library and was chatting with your Mom about my favourite short story in the book. Later that day, after reading a paragraph that you had handed in, I sent her this email, “Someday, we’ll be signing Kevin’s books out of the library.”
In your words Kevin: A large part of my childhood consisted of playing with army toys with Bryan. We had quite the variety of army toys, ranging from the basic little green army men to metal tanks the size of a loaf of bread. We would spend hours building up our bases and placing our forces in strategic areas. Sometimes our bases were in different rooms and occasionally we would combine our forces to fight the evil stuffed animals and rubber dinosaurs. When we had put the final touches on our bases, we would let the opposing force attack. The dinosaurs would always rip through our front lines and throw our tanks around (almost as if they were toys). The battles would rage for hours, either until we had to clean up, or a victor would emerge from the carnage and upturned tanks. Usually our armies would be victorious, but on the rare occasion there would be the one teddy bear that was just too strong to defeat.
Last Friday as I sat in the hay loft, as I watched the boys jump out of the hay loft, and then as I sat in a field of dandelions, I realized I was not grumpy. I was just sad. I was beginning to feel the weight of your journey. I was beginning to miss my grads.
And I wondered, had we asked the right questions?
What are our universal truths? Are we poets or piranhas? What is our constant? Do you each have your own bouncy ball? Are we invisible to dogs? What is the quest?
Cole, Cassidy, Andrew, Nadine and Kevin, I hope you will always remember that it is in your own stories that you will find the deepest wonders and most inspiring of truths.
It is your journey that has meaning. ~