On Friday evening, my wife and I had the privilege of attending the capstone event for the Young Writers Workshop that we have at Ohio State University each summer. I believe it’s been about nine summers now. I remember closing the deal with our generous donor when I was directing the creative writing program back in 2008. Thanks to our donor, up to thirty high school students from Columbus City Schools get to attend this week-long workshop free of charge. The lucky students get to take morning classes in all sorts of things to do with writing, and also to be in an afternoon workshop in either fiction, poetry or creative nonfiction. They also get to listen to readings from faculty members.
The capstone event, though, is the one where the students get to read from their own work. It’s always a very moving experience to see these young people bond in such a short period of time. Friday night, they were typically enthusiastic and supportive. They whooped and hollered each time one of their number came to the microphone. For most, I’m sure, it was the first time they’d read in front of an audience, consisting of their peers, their teachers, their family members. Many of them had written some very personal things. Despite the nerves and the exposure, they all read beautifully.
One young man stood out for me, not so much because of what he’d written but because he had a stammer, and yet there he was, sometimes laboring to find the next word, sometimes falling into a long silence as he waited for that word to come. When that happened, his peers would start snapping their fingers, and the rhythm seemed to allow him to say the next word, and the next one after it, and on, until he hit that pause again, and the snapping would resume, and little by little, together, the young man and his peers read that piece of writing together.
As I move closer to starting my thirty-sixth year of teaching, I’m thankful I was there Friday night to be a part of this young man’s struggle and victory. It was a reminder of something I think we who teach all need to be reminded of from time to time. I was moved by the spirit of cooperation and support, and I renewed my vow to always make my writing workshop a place of safety and mutual encouragement—a place where students can get comfortable with striving and risk; where they can try things in their writing they haven’t before tried; where they can learn that when one succeeds, we all succeed; where they can find a community of like-minded folks, who will make them feel a little less alone, or a little less unusual because they have a passion for the written word when so much of the world doesn’t.
This young man also reminded me to never forget that each student carries something with him or her into the writing workshop that he or she has to overcome. He and his peers reminded me to be patient, to be understanding, to be considerate, to be compassionate. Writing is an act of bravery and empathy, and Friday night this courageous young man and his supportive and kind peers reminded me of that. They reminded me of all that can be good in our regular come and go, both in the writing workshop and outside in our day-to-day living.