Considering Criticism & Rewriting As Revision

In December I submitted this essay for publication. I received brief editorial comments on the piece earlier this month:

Need to stick to a focus/theme and tell a story that supports it. I think the theme is that she was going through similar life changes, questioning, forming an identity much like her senior class. But there is no story to show this. As I read it, I can identify this theme, but then if you were to ask me for examples from the story that support this theme, I couldn’t tell you. I have no idea why this class was so memorable to her because there is no small story to show it. She jumps form “this class meant a lot to me, we were going through the same thing” to “I was sad to say goodbye” There needs to be a middle part.

Everything that doesn’t support this theme should be cut so that the focus is maintained throughout the piece.

Sentence structure is very loose. It is hard to follow at times. I get lost in run on sentences and fragments. It sounds like a stream of conscious thinking instead of well formed sentences.

I thought What a jerk. I do not know the editor. I don’t have a name. She is a she but I don’t know if that matters. I reread the comments at each stoplight on my drive home, adding to my argument against her points. This isn’t supposed to be a five paragraph personal narrative. This is associative on purpose. It’s a lyric essay (or another of my half dozen attempts). Fragments aren’t evil! The core of her critique is not knowing why the class matters at all and I thought about that between lights, tried to list scenes that illustrate why that group is important to me and I realized those senior English classes matter mostly because people and places near us when we figure something out or grow or stumble are entwined with our figuring out, growing or stumbling.

What I don’t understand is why I entwined my growth with three dozen teenagers whose names and faces, along with mine, fade to single memories summing a whole year, or why I felt urgently sentimental enough to write an essay about it.

But I did. And then I got a critique. And called a faceless editor a jerk. But when I got home and reread my entire essay I cringed. It is hard to follow. You really  have no idea why I like this class. I cram too much in a small space, ruminations that might sound whiny or didactic. I copy/ pasted the whole piece and kept the word cut in my head, paring down to the idea of parallel experiences. I still didn’t have a good single story to illustrate love for a class roster I’d need to look up to fully remember. But I found a better way in to explaining the year. Revision included a lot of new writing, big cuts, and rearranging. I did this because I want to publish and how will I ever manage that if I don’t practice applying editorial critique? The following essay is different and better than the original.

Growing Into Who I Am

The college essay feels intimidating from the start. Admissions committees judge your merit on GPA, letters of recommendation and the essay you hope shouts like me! Choose me! When I introduce the essay in September, students stress about which prompt might show them best. The first week of drafting is like watching a group of friends pose for pictures, turning a head first this way and then that, popping a hip, kissing the camera, brushing hair from the face, trading a smile for a smirk. They don’t know what they want to say about who they are. They don’t totally know who they are.

Last year I felt much the same. My seniors were choosing a future they couldn’t see. During their college essay drafting and revision work, conversations echoed from one student to the next. Tareq wanted to be a doctor, maybe, or an engineer. Nadine was interested in business. No one wanted to be a literature teacher. I thought how I got here. One afternoon I drafted my own essay, written from the other side of college after things have mostly turned out alright: Why I Am Still An English Teacher. Just as my classes were thinking up small stories to illustrate how compassionate or curious they were, I was mining my years in the classroom for reasons why I’d returned that fall. For years, I admitted, I held my profession at arms’ length, uncertain I really was a teacher. I thought I was more a writer. I was waiting to be more a writer.

But what happened, I explained, is that I practiced teaching day after day after day and became a good teacher. What happened is we moved abroad and teaching was my job. What happened is I found enough joy in the classroom to stay. As I wrote my essay and then modeled expansion and cuts with my classes, I thought how much becoming a teacher mirrors the writing process. So much messy work at the start. A few gorgeous images. But over the academic years, smoother transitions and more hearty middle paragraphs, perhaps even a bold imitation of another’s style.

At the third revision of my post-college-career-acceptance essay, I almost believed teaching in the Middle East was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. As they year went on – waking up tired, running treadmill miles, negotiating traffic with kids in the backseat and opening the door to first period – I occasionally returned to that question of why I’m still an English teacher. I wasn’t unhappy but I wasn’t sure either. I felt like my seniors. They were making big decisions and sometimes asked my opinion. I assured one class they would be okay, wherever they landed, eventually, maybe. They wanted to know how I chose my college. So I told them I went to a university that promised a scholarship, supposing I’d transfer after a year or two, but instead I studied English which led to me choosing a teaching certification which wandered me from Wisconsin to Colombia to Kuwait. See, I said, It turns out okay. We laughed.

No choice is inconsequential and that’s a terrifying thought for an eighteen year old. It’s a terrifying thought for a thirty-six year old. I saw parallels between my seniors learning who they were, what they wanted next, and my own questions why I was in the Middle East and what I was doing with my piles of notebooks and files of finished poetry and narrative pieces. Each of us went on with the year. Students shared rejections and acceptances. I took a writing workshop and renewed my teaching contract. Each of us started to see the shape of who we are, again.

Watching my seniors sort their future pointed me to mine. I accepted: I am a teacher and writer. More than that, though, I sensed the culmination of half a dozen years fighting to enjoy who I am, where I am. Last year when my daughter and son came to my classroom after school I’d pull them to me, breathe their shampoo and sweat, kiss their foreheads and think, Please don’t take this away from me. Last year I felt my body settle into its shape. I worked my writing with a trust that one day it lands for you to read. When I pray for my kids, I ask God that they grow into who they are. That was the gift of last year, that I grew more into who I am.

Knowing better who I am is in part knowing who I am not. As my seniors were dreaming new dreams I was letting go old dreams. I was embarrassed I measured so much of myself against first fantasies of adulthood, farfetched high school dreams. I am not a photojournalist covering conflict. I am not fashionable. I am not an Olympic distance runner. I am not rich. I am not single or given to a month in Ireland each summer. I wondered what my seniors expected of their adulthood. They talked of engineering, business, medicine and law. They talked of London, Dubai, Boston and LA. They talked of returning to Kuwait. But they cannot do all the things in their minds and they know it but they don’t really know it yet.

One day my seniors will wake to letting go the corporation or property or body. They will look and walk more like who they are. They will be new in unexpected ways, discovering a language or partner in their twenties, finding a paintbrush or cello in their thirties. They will wear marriage, parenthood, singleness. One day they will feel the weight of loss. But one day let them also wear their body heart mind spirit like it fits.

When June arrived I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to my seniors. At the senior night and again at the senior breakfast and finally at the commencement ceremony, I kept thinking of things I wanted to say or wish or hope for my students. I think there are two reasons I was sad. One, that class was witness to my understanding I can be a teacher and writer, practicing both with hope. The place and people you’re near the moment you see or accept or embrace an important truth matter. But more simply, after nine years abroad, I was over heartbreak.

To be a teacher and an expat is to say goodbye a thousand times. More. My husband taped a map to the wall and sometimes I look at the pastel colors of countries and think of my friends as little dots there and there and there. I measure the space between us. The first few years in Kuwait when close friends left I cried, looking out my apartment window at the Gulf, already knowing the greater loss, that we wouldn’t keep in touch past occasional email or Facebook likes, that our witness to one another’s growth in faith or motherhood wouldn’t continue over a coffee or on a walk. Then for a few years I didn’t cry very much, perhaps accepting the greater loss. But last year my heart cut on the understanding I can’t keep any of this and while I was sad to see my seniors graduate, I was sadder at the many future goodbyes I choose as a teacher and expat.

Now I have a new group of seniors who are as lovely as the last. We learn together. Sometimes I think of one of my seniors from last year, wonder how they are doing in winter weather or if they are still writing, but I don’t feel the deep sorrow of June. Maybe I get to see who they are in another decade or two. Maybe they get to see who I am. Maybe we walk in lines that don’t cross again. But that class matters to me. They were with me as I decided I can be this.

For my ASK 2016 seniors

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