Untying the Knot: Why I Teach

Every summer, eighteen young writers spend an intensive three weeks at Grub HQ in the Young Adult Writers Program Summer Fellowship. A competitive, application-only course, the annual fellowship guides students to generate new work, learn about the craft of writing, and gain knowledge of the writing and publishing world. Seasoned instructor Jennifer De Leon recounts the dramatic finale of this year's fellowship reading, and how helping one young writer find her voice and perform for her family was a powerful reminder of what drives her as a teacher.

 

Editor's note: Jenn will be teaching three Jumpstart Your College Essay sessions for teens this fall, starting August 27th. Adults, you can Jumpstart Your Fiction with Jenn this Saturday, August 13th at Grub HQ!

 

It was the first hour of day one in the YAWP Summer Fellowship: Ice-breaker time. Go around the room and tell us something about yourself that we can’t tell just by looking at you, I said. Some responses: I used to live in Canada; I speak Spanish; I have a peanut allergy. When it was Patricia’s turn, she simply shook her head and whispered, Pass.

 Alright, I thought. Some kids are shy. I say “kids” even though half the class was taller than me, but as someone who has taught middle school and high school for over ten years, I am used to this. I am also used to getting the shy kids to open up, peek out of their turtle shells.

Not Patricia.

That whole first day she stayed quiet. When we shared our writing—quick character sketches, brainstorms, lists of things we hate—Patricia slid her blue-lined notebook toward me and asked if I could read it for her. Or, she’d repeat: Pass.

That afternoon I spoke to her mother, in Spanish, on the phone. She assured me that her daughter was just really introverted. It was not a language barrier. Okay. First day jitters.

But it happened again the next day. And the next.

I admit, I was concerned. I paired her up with the friendliest teen in the room—which wasn’t hard. Every last one of these talented writers also happened to exhibit literary citizenship without calling it so. Patricia did the work. She filled her notebook. She even attended the optional write-in sessions on Fridays, borrowing a laptop from the Grub office and typing up her work from the week. Sometimes in class she handed me notes: I’m stuck.

Then came the odes. Patricia wrote an ode to the Dominican Republic. She was born there before moving to Boston at the age of two. Recently, she’d gone back to the D.R. where she visited with dozens of relatives and rode motorcycles down bumpy dirt roads, the wind whipping her long black hair. I know this because soon Patricia started communicating through photos on her cell phone. She’d show me picture after picture, one of her three-month-old baby cousin dressed as if ready for the prom, wearing a frilly pink dress and matching headband, another one of her mom and ten-year-old sister each wearing one-shoulder black shirts. I showed her photos of my three-year-old son. Bandido, I called him. At that she smiled, just a bit. By week two, we shared books. I lent her a copy of Drown by Junot Díaz. The next morning she handed it back to me. You didn’t like it? I assumed the worst. No. She shook her head. I finished it.

These are the moments that fill the tank of my teacher engine, so that on days when the road is temporarily blocked, or the weather in the classroom is just plain bad, I keep going.

But there was more.

Patricia worked on her ode to the D.R. and shared several drafts, both in workshop and one-on-one. While other students balanced multiple pieces throughout the fellowship—stories, poems, letters—like flaming batons in the air, Patricia gripped her one baton steady. Her ode to her birth country.

The summer fellowship’s culminating event, a reading at the gorgeous Athenaeum library near the State House, fell on a humid Thursday evening in July. The teens had been prepping for it—timing their readings, perfecting their performances, filling up on greasy slices of pizza before changing into summery dresses and button-down shirts and ties, and walking across the Common. Family and friends were meeting us there.

Right before the reading started, Patricia handed me her cell phone, with its glittery blue case. Her mother and sister were on their way from Brighton, but her mother didn’t like to drive in downtown Boston. She was running late. Could her mother call me in case she became lost?

I knew her predicament well. Event about to start. Parent not yet there. Heart racing. This was a knot I had to untangle many a time in the past. My mom hated driving in the city, too. My mom was from another country, too. But could I help Patricia’s mother now?

The reading started. No call yet from her mother. I kept turning my neck, hoping that her mother and sister were seated in the back—that there was no knot to untangle after all. The cell phone buzzed. Missed call. It rang again. I excused myself from my row and waited until I got to the lobby to talk to Patricia’s mother. She was lost, and far away—somewhere on Newbury Street. I knew, looking at the glowing numbers on the cell phone, that even if she ran, she wouldn’t make the reading.

Sadly, I was right.

Just as Patricia’s little sister and mother—dressed up, wearing white high heels, holding bouquets of flowers—crossed the street by the State House, my own cell phone buzzed.

Inside the Athenaeum, my husband sent me a text: the reading is over.

I pictured my own mother, pre-Google maps, pre-cell phones, stopping at gas stations and convenience stores and asking for directions to the art museum or college center or hall where I was giving a reading. Sometimes she got there at the last minute. Other times she missed the reading but we’d stage pictures to make it look like she’d been there the whole time. There is something so powerful in seeing your parent see you do the thing you love most. Even now, when I see my mom in the audience at one of my readings, my fifteen-year-old heart within my heart beats a little faster.

Needless to say, I was devastated.

But, maybe there was something we could do.

I sent texts like crazy. To my husband inside the Athenaeum, to my co-instructors, to the Program Director. Patricia has to read again. Stall? 2 min away. Please.

Together, we untied the knot. One instructor tapped Regie, the event’s magnificent MC, on the shoulder. Regie explained the situation to the audience and then performed a poem of his own. My other colleagues sent me texts. 40 seconds away, I replied. Finally, with shiny foreheads, Patricia’s mother, sister and I entered the packed, high-ceilinged room. A hundred heads turned toward us. I escorted Patricia’s mother and sister to the front row where they sat as Regie reintroduced Patricia to the podium. The clapping in that moment still rings in my ears.

Patricia could hardly get through reading her poem without smiling or laughing or glancing at her mother. Afterward, we ate cookies and drank soda and took pictures. Gracias, her mother said and hugged me.

Times like these, I am reminded how writing is about so much more than what can be contained within the margins of a page.

About the Author

Jennifer De Leon is the winner of the 2011 Fourth Genre Michael Steinberg Essay Prize. Her stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Brevity, Ms., Briar Cliff Review, Poets & Writers, Guernica, The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010, and elsewhere. She has published author interviews in Granta and Agni, and she has been awarded scholarships and residencies from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, Blue Mountain Center, and the Sandra Cisneros Macondo Writers’ Workshop. The editor of the anthology, Wise Latina: Writers on Higher Education(University of Nebraska Press, 2013), she is also working on a memoir and a novel.

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