By Molly Krause
Most seventh graders are awkward. Some have little control over their growing limbs, others have zits or facial hair or both appearing without warning, some have been the same size since they were ten and are waiting for the hormones to kick in. But even by these standards, this student is especially out of place. She raises her hand to answer my questions, but often can’t articulate her thoughts out loud when I call on her and she shakes her head. Many of the girls straighten their hair, have braces on their teeth and wear carefully chosen outfits. She is the opposite.
As the Zinn Writer in Residence at Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, I am working with these seventh graders on writing six word memoirs. As a mother to teenage daughters, memoir is my first instinct to channel the self-centeredness that can mark this stage of life. You are the expert on you, I tell them; let’s just put it in words now.
Some struggle so I give them prompts – I feel…, I like…., I can’t…., and so on. But she doesn’t struggle, this awkward young lady, the six word memoirs come pouring out of her. As I look over shoulders at work, many share about hobbies (I like to play video games, I like to play basketball daily) and many have a hard time coming up with the six I assigned. But her list looks to be over a dozen already and she’s still writing. Don’t fit in, don’t know why. My heart breaks a little when I scan her memoirs of alienation and loneliness.
“Good work,” I tell her. “You have a knack for these, keep it up.” She nods and looks back at her paper. I can’t tell if she’s embarrassed, self-conscious or just lacking in self-esteem. My gut churns as I remember my seventh grade self – appearing to fit in but never feeling it. Reading and writing gave me freedom and lightness; I want this for all of my students but especially for her. I want her to experience connection through words. I want her to look me in the eye.
“Who has an idea of how to visualize my example?” I ask the class after we watch a slideshow of illustrated six word memoirs during the next time we meet. A boy shouts to his friend across the room about what they want to do after school. A girl asks if she can get a drink of water. I watch another playing solitaire on her phone. As the bell rings for class to end, I wonder if anything was accomplished at all. Even with the bribery of candy, not everyone is completing the assignments. I would have done just about anything for a bag of Skittles at that age; I just don’t understand not even trying.
I grab my folder, preparing to go to the next class when I see the awkward girl walking towards me. I pause and wait, resisting the temptation to speak first.
“I’m sorry about that,” she said, looking down at her feet.
I wait for her to look up. “For what?” I ask.
“That they weren’t paying attention. That they were talking while you were.”
“Don’t be sorry about that.” I put my hand on her back. “You were listening, that’s the important part.”
I have been worrying about her but it turns out she has been worrying about me. And she looked me in the eye before she walked away.
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