Writing is–


Back in 1995, I was hired to teach a first-semester freshman composition course at a community college in downtown Denver. This was my first experience at the school, and the class was probably one of my more memorable classes over the years. The group was large, and the students seemed enthusiastic about the prospects of the course–all except two. One was only present the first day of class and then disappeared the rest of the semester. She didn’t return until course evaluation day, and of course she gave me a bad rap on the evaluation–the only bad rap I received! When I received my report the following semester and noticed the comment “She should teach me”–I knew exactly who wrote it. Of course, she failed the course. You don’t give an incomplete for non-attendance the entire semester. The other student turned out to be my unforgettable success story at the community college. For purposes of this entry, I will refer to him as “Patrick.”

When I first saw Patrick, he sat in the middle of the back row against the wall. He hunched over slightly, eyeing me as I handed out the syllabus for the semester. Then I did my “teacher thing” by explaining what we would be doing that fall. One of the course requirements involved an in-class writing of a journal entry. I would write the prompt on the board, and students would respond to it–an immediate action-type of thing. If their minds drew a blank, they would write the word “nothing” on the journal page until something clicked, and then they would go from there. Patrick approached me after class that first day.

“I don’t do journals!” he told me.

Always the optimist with my students, I responded by saying, “Well, if you can’t think of anything to write, just jot the word nothing down on your page until something clicks.”

I later learned Patrick was actually a bored high school student, whose counselor recommended that he try some college classes. He was much younger than the other students in the class for that reason. And his journal entries that first week consisted solely of a string of “nothings” followed by an ending comment: “I DON’T DO JOURNALS! SORRY!”

There had to be a way of cracking this egg shell!

I shared my office that semester with the creative writing instructor and discovered that Patrick was also enrolled in his class.

“Each day I keep wondering whether this guy has something or not!” he told me. “He just sits there and hunches over his desk and looks around the room!”

“That’s what he does in mine!”

I began thinking it was going to be a long semester.

Finally, late in the second or third week, I ignited a spark. The students were all present, notebooks open, waiting for the prompt. I entered the room, picked up the marker and wrote Writing is— on the board.

“Now, you finish it!” I told them.

The students wrote furiously, including Patrick. I remember glancing at him, thinking I would get a list of nothings followed by his anti-journal comment. But today, he seemed to be scribbling more! What is he writing? I wondered.

I always collected the entries at the end of class and read through them each evening, writing my own comments on each page. When I arrived at Patrick’s entry, I think I exclaimed, “Oh my!” Instead of his normal diatribe, he created a unique, descriptive passage defining writing. And from that point on, Patrick was empowered. He turned out to be an amazing writer at such a young age. For one essay assignment, he interviewed a hobo by the name of Joe. Joe lived under a bridge outside Patrick’s mountain town, and Joe actually wrote the first draft himself!

“My teacher said I’m supposed to write it,” Patrick told him.

“Aw, she won’t care!” Joe told him. “You can tidy it up to make her happy! You tell my story, you gotta write it raw!”

The final paper–Joe’s original draft and Patrick’s rewrite–was amazing–something you generally don’t see in a first semester college composition class.

Patrick later transferred to the University, where he made a number of marvelous achievements. He took a few years away from school, formed his own band, and traveled the country. And he kept in touch with his creative writing instructor at the community college because he created some phenomenal pieces there as well.

“Oh, he’ll finish school,” the instructor told me. “He just needs to do all of this first. And by the way, he told me he has written a novel! It is 1,000 pages long!”

All of that happened a long time ago. Since then, the creative writing instructor moved on with his life. I haved moved on with my life as well. As a result, I’ve lost all contact with Patrick and no longer know where he is and what he is doing. But he is a wonderful memory–one of those meteorites you see occasionally that brightens the sky and disappears.

Writing is–

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