Raising my voice above the clamor, I called out, “Okay, you can start your ten minutes of freewriting NOW.”
Even in my rowdy, chaotic, feral-children-come-to-college afternoon class, that command settled them down. Heads bent over notebooks, and fingers tapped away on keyboards.
For the next ten minutes, the usual cacophony calmed down, and they focused on writing journals.
Asking them to keep journals at home would be a fool’s assignment. They can hardly get to the classroom with pants on. They’re so caught up in the drama of bad relationships, daycare that has failed them, parents who are addicts, boyfriends who grab them by the throats, getting “beat down” by their girlfriends, going out and buying “a 750” and nursing that huge bottle of liquor all day before attending math class in the evening, cars that veer into the ditch, “wiping butts for a living” in their home healthcare jobs, being handed a blunt by their pals who know they just got out of juvie…
they’re so caught up in figuring what a bad decision looks like
that I would never see a journal entry from any of them if it were assigned as homework. So, well, we do the journals in class. I time them. I tell them to go off on tangents, make shopping lists, draw me pictures–but to keep their hands moving for the entire ten minutes, no matter what. I describe the activity as a brain vomit and urge them to spew.
The results are mind-boggling: crazy, confusing, hilarious, amusing, informative, unfiltered.
And occasionally, as in the case of one of the best students in the class, a young woman who was thirty days sober when the semester began, a young woman who wrote her first paper about waking up in detox–not for the first time–and then being kept there for three days, until she was functional again, the results can be moving.
Here is what she wrote when given the prompt “I wish I had enough money to…”:
I wish I had enough money to live without having to pay off hospital bills and unhelpful therapy bills.
I wish I had enough money to buy clothes two times a year instead of once.
I wish I had enough money to find a physical activity I’m passionate about.
I wish I had enough money to have a car and maintain it.
I wish I had enough money to see a therapist more often.
I wish I had enough money to take a vacation to California every year or two or three. I would love to go every summer.
I wish I had enough money to get my natural hair color back.
I wish I had enough money to adopt a lot of animals and feed them and take care of them.
I wish I had enough money so my mom and I would not have debt.
I wish I had enough money to change things.
I wish I had enough money to always have bread and milk at my house.
I, her teacher, wish all of these things for her, too. I wish and hope that a college education makes all of those things possible
and changes all of her everythings forever.
She’s why I can walk into that classroom every day. The toughest of the lot–the dealer, the pimp, the ones with guns in their backpacks–stopped coming. The ones who relied on smooth patter and attempts at charm instead of effort stopped coming. The ones who couldn’t fight the urge for heroin, whose parents called the college, frantic to know their child’s whereabouts, stopped coming.
But this self-described “drunk,” she’s in the classroom every single period. She and the blonde identical twins in the back row almost came to blows one day. To this young woman’s credit, they managed to keep their annoyances verbal and reined in their tendencies toward the physical. This gifted “drunk” finally offered the olive branch of “I’m sorry if I came off as bitchy, but you two just have to shut up sometimes,” and we called that détente.
This gifted “drunk” has been a delight of my semester. Always, she should have bread and milk in her house.
We all should.
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