Sarah DeBacher | May 21, 2013
“Writing is both a challenge and an extreme exigency—that is, it is both called forth by and constitutes the trauma. But writing both exceeds and is inadequate to the task; it is both unavoidable and impossible.”— Peter and Maureen Daly Goggin, Trauma and the Teaching of Writing (2005).
In my attic there is box containing hundreds of magnets I collected from curb-side refrigerators after Hurricane Katrina. I’d been fortunate enough to have a home to return to, but when I was allowed to return to New Orleans in October of 2005, the city was virtually unrecognizable. The visual landscape was so disrupted, so disruptive, that it made its way into horrifying underwater nightmares I couldn’t shake. Even when I dreamt lucidly, I was unable to wake myself, my subconscious seemingly aware that the waking-world would provide no comfort. What on earth was this? How on earth could this have happened? I spent my days in a kind of stupor, and yet the collection of refrigerator magnets and documentation of their sites gave me a kind of purpose. I had no idea what I would do with the magnets. I still don’t. I just needed to do something.
School began. I got busy with the work of teaching—an immense comfort and immense burden, both. My classes took place online, but internet connectivity was spotty, at best. Regular power outages plunged us into darkness and we shuffled out onto stoops to visit with others who’d returned, to share stories about how we’d “made out in the storm.”
My students had it much worse than I did. Before that semester began, I’d grown accustomed to the usual range of excuses for late work: dead grandmothers (so many dead grandmothers!), flat tires, printers without ink, etc. But this semester the excuses punched me in the gut. “I lost my job, my home, everything. Can I please have an extension on Essay 2?” Yes. Yes! I remember feeling like my every teacherly choice that semester was Really Effing Important. What would I assign? How could I respond ethically and empathetically to students whose lives had been—like mine—upended entirely? (I wrote about the experience of teaching after Hurricane Katrina in an article that appeared in Reflections in 2007.)
Today I’ve been thinking about the texts I produced in the immediate aftermath of Katrina (although I’ve learned that a more accurate way of putting it is “in the aftermath of the failure of the federal levees.) I’ve been thinking about that box of magnets and the blogging I did and the writing I assigned, and the emails I sent, and how my words helped me heal but also plunged me right back into the depths of despair, too.
Sarah DeBacher | May 13, 2013
This weekend was intense in ways expected and not. The expected territory came on Saturday, when GNOWP welcomed ten of the twelve teachers who will be joining us during this year’s Summer Institute. We gathered in the Liberal Arts building on the campus of the University of New Orleans to write together, to build some community.
Early on, two of our teachers—Jeanne Patrick and Allison Lowe—shared a standout moment from the written conversation they’d just had. Jeanne had written about the importance of finding ways to make her students feel safe so they could then take brave risks in their writing. We all nodded in agreement. For risky writing to take place, there must be safety.
Risky writing is the brave, truth-telling stuff through which we do more than poke dead things with sticks—we wrestle with why they died; we take a good, close look at the effed-up fact that we will all, someday, (today, maybe,) die too; we lay them to rest, eulogizing worms and birds, and the dark stuff bubbling up in the children who abuse them, with an empathy achievable only through deep consideration and an acknowledgement that the First Thought might not be the right one. Risky writing does not pose easy questions or provide simple answers. It plows past platitudes and kisses complexity. It dives right into the depths of “I don’t know,” the only sure thing being that some discovery will be made, that the heart of the writer will be changed.
Sarah DeBacher | April 26, 2013
“Revision—re-seeing, is how the writer sees the world and understands its meaning.” –Donald Murray
I spent last weekend blowing bubbles with armadillos and getting in touch with my student-heart.
Allow me to explain.
Last weekend, GNOWP wrapped a year-long series of workshops at Carolyn Park Middle School. Saturday’s goal: revising and reflecting. To launch, we closed our eyes and imagined our yards covered in armadillos. Yes, armadillos.
When we opened our eyes, we listed five things we’d do with the armadillos. Next, we listed five more. And then five more again.
Our first lists had us shooting, shooing, cooking, and otherwise ridding the yard of armadillos. By the third go-around, we were doing yoga with the armadillos, conducting food-preference experiments, calling in a team of consultants to conduct a thorough armadillo-analysis. It was good, giggly fun, this armadillo exercise. And through it, we saw how the first thought may not always be the most imaginative one. In debriefing, we agreed that our students would love the activity. They, like us, love the fun stuff, if not armadillos.
Soon, however, things got decidedly dark. I asked the teachers to get out a piece of writing they’d been working on over the past several weeks and months. I handed out scissors. The teachers knew what was coming next, and they didn’t like it. Not one bit.