Memories in the Classroom
I was three weeks into teaching Writing for Absolute Beginners at the Loft in late September 2001. The front room with it’s long rectangular windows, faced Washington Avenue. I couldn’t see the Mississippi River or the Stone Arch Bridge, but had a good view of the Liquor Depot across the street, parking lots, tree tops, and sky. Inside the room, tables sat in a rectangle donut with seventeen students in chairs around the edges. I remember they, as students in these classes often were, were people in transition; mothers, students, retirees, people starting new careers, or new to Minnesota. We had written together and shared some of that writing. Students were beginning to know me and to know each other, but this was the day the classroom became a community.
We had come to the class sessions where I was teaching about memoir writing. We had talked about using original details which could be names of particular people, places and things. We had talked about using sensory detail and how it conveyed emotions and brought writing alive with visceral impacts for writer and reader.
That Tuesday morning (seemed I was always teaching on Tuesday) we had been talking about historical context for personal writing. I had arrived with a writing prompt that I was excited and nervous about. I had read that writing teachers and counselors in New York City had been using writing in the groups that were gathering those early days after September 11th. And that was what I was considering: write ten minutes and tell me where you were when you heard the planes had hit the World Trade Center. I suggested they say who told them, what the day was like, what they saw, what they said, and what happened next. Not about the politics, not about the countries involved, not about judgements.
Ten minutes, the writing began. They were using paper and pen, and it seemed to me, there was no hesitation. Shifting of papers and bodies ceased and the breathing in the room quieted. The black rimmed clock on the back wall had the time wrong. Needs a new battery I thought, comparing it to my wristwatch. Funny to remember— no computers, no cell phones. At ten minutes the stillness in the room had grown and notebook pages turned. These people were writing hard and fast and were nowhere near done. I let them go on another five minutes before calling a warning, “Two more minutes.” I waited two minutes, said “One more minute.” Some had stopped then and were shaking out their writing hand. “Last sentence,” I said. The woman next to me smiled. Others looked up, some looked down at the floor. I looked out at the sky, clouded or clear, I don’t remember for sure what it was that day, only that it was a whole skyline, unbroken by smoke or fire or dust.
“How was that for you all?” My usual question seemed inappropriate. I changed tactics, “I’d like to go around now and have each person read. Remember you always have the option to pass. I’d like everyone to practice listening to the writer. We aren’t going to give feedback, but just go on one after another until we’ve heard everyone read and then we’ll talk.”
I turned to the woman seated to my left, “Sometimes it’s dangerous to sit to my left— do you mind going first?”
I don’t remember the details of the stories in this particular class, for I went on to repeat this writing exercise many times. I do remember each person in the room read more willingly than they had before. The listening was deeper, too. I heard stories of teachers, of nurses and doctors, of men and women in or out of town separated when the airports closed. I heard stories of people at work who stood and stared at TV screens with their coworkers thinking they were seeing the latest disaster movie. Every person knew where they were and what they were doing and what they felt that day.
Many said they had not written about this day before and were so surprised how much they remembered and how good it felt to share. Many said they wanted to go on and write more.
Every story felt important and a piece of the bigger story of this painful moment. “You write your story, so it will not be forgotten. Our culture needs all the versions of stories from that day,” I said. I was thinking of Patricia Hampl’s words in her essay ‘Memory and Imagination’. She wrote “What is remembered is what becomes reality.” And further, “The function of memory, while experienced as intensely personal, is surprisingly political.”
We are always living in a personal and cultural moment where writing can be a friend that helps us heal inside and connect to community. Sometimes these written memories stay personal, sometimes these memories circulate in a circle of family and friends, and sometimes these written memories become parts of a novel, or a memoir, an essay, or a poem.
Jorie Miller is a published poet, memoirist, and teaching artist. A recipient of a Loft Outstanding Teacher’s Award, her work was also honored with a Residency Fellowship at the Center for Rural and Regional Development at Southwest Minnesota State University. She is teaching Writing for Absolute Beginners, starting March 16 at the Loft.