By Krista Price
“Take out your journals or a blank sheet of paper,” I say, “Today’s freewrite prompts are When I looked up… or When I was born… or whatever happens to be on your mind.”
I teach at a small for-profit college. Our students are mostly first-generation college students. Many have not had a lot of success with the traditional education system. For many, this is an expensive gamble that they may be capable of more than they have achieved so far.
I write the prompts on the whiteboard. The stinky dry erase marker squeaks. “Remember,” I say, “no worries about grammar or punctuation. I’m not even going to read it unless you ask me to. Just write. 10 minutes. Now go.”
I take a stroll around the room to make sure everybody is writing or making an attempt at writing. I know that for some it takes a while to get going, but I want to make sure everyone is on task. No phone checking. No working on other homework. If they need a word of encouragement I’ll offer it. After a few minutes, I return to my seat.
Eight minutes into the freewrite Theodore comes up to me.
Tall with rich dark skin. Severe, taut face—strong jaw. Lithe and powerful, he is surprisingly light on his feet—dancer-like. His sage green T-shirt clings to his chest and biceps reveal muscles even when he is relaxed –although he never really looks relaxed. A snake tattoo rings his upper arm. It would be easy to be intimidated by Theodore, which, I believe, is exactly what he is hoping for.
He stands close enough for me to sense his quiet power and looks away as he hands me his paper with long graceful fingers.
“Can I show this to you? He says, “It’s not very good.”
“Of course,” I say, “come sit with me.” I drag a chair over and we sit head to head—Theodore’s close-cropped hair, scented coconut, and my mouse brown 40-something teacher hair.
I read: When I was 3 my mother Sharon used to make me happy. I had company that made me feel warm inside until one day when she was taken away by the police.
But this is not exactly how Theodore has written it. He has detailed his violent childhood in fragments, in broken sentences and run-ons. It’s a mess but I understand. Sometimes student stories are so sad I just want to put my head down on the desk and weep. But I don’t. I smile at him. I act like it is no big deal.
My job is to “fix” his sentences. Subject-verb agreement. No run-ons. Active not passive. I’m told that if Theodore is ever going to have a shot in this world he needs to play by the writing rules. And that it is up to me to teach him those rules. But I can’t help looking beyond the rules. Because beyond the rules is Theodore and Theodore’s story.
I scoot my chair even closer.
“Let’s try this,” I say. We rearrange clauses and chose different words. We repair the run-ons. “See.” I say, “Just needed a little tweaking.” Together we make the sentences work—his words, his pain, his life. We work on the words and phrases until the sentences begin to sing their sad song.
They favored my brother Randy because of his light skin color.
I grew up knowing nothing but hate.
I stay distant because my heart is in pain still.
“Now see, see how it flows.” I turn to him, to make sure he’s OK.
But when I look up, Theodore’s face is different. It is softer—the rugged lines relaxed. Not exactly relaxed, but softer. The brown in his eyes different, a new light there now. I’m feeling pretty good.
“And to think,” I say, “now you are in college.”
Theodore drops his head. “I know,” he says. The light, gone again. His eyes stark and sad
and back on alert. He looks away. “My writing’s like third grade.”
“No, no, that’s not what I mean,” I say. “Don’t worry about the writing. It’s fine. What I mean is that after all you’ve been through, and now here you are. In college.”
I look into his face and the light is back. A crack of a smile.
“I never thought of it that way,” he says.
Krista Dabakis Price lives, teaches and writes in Portland, Oregon. Krista is a former Dangerous Writer with Tom Spanbauer and currently in the Body of the Book workshop with Lidia Yuknavitch. She is a frequent reader at the Burnt Tongue series and is published in Nailed and The Class That Fell n Love With the Man. She has two children and one husband.