A bunch of five year olds brought writing back to me. I was thirty-three years old at the time. Their kindergarten teachers told me, “We don’t let our kids write. They’re not ready for it.” The three of us stood in the dimly-lit hallway outside their classrooms, their arms crossed over their chests. The bottom half of the two-tone walls were covered with smudged fingerprints, trailing pencil marks, and patches of peeling paint. “They don’t know their letters,” they added. “They can’t write their names. … Their parents don’t read to them.”
The litany went on. I didn’t know what to say. One was a senior teacher, and both were well respected. The school year had just begun. Employed by a nearby university, my job was to coach primary teachers in literacy instruction and provide professional development to public schools trying to teach their way off the state and federal watch lists that threatened to shut them down. “We’re in the business of saving lives,” I’d heard the principal tell her staff just the day before. “It’s nothing personal. It’s about the kids.”
I decided not to argue back, at least not during our first meeting. I knew kids write long before they come to school. They scribble down pretend McDonald’s orders and fill pages with random letters. They make up stories and draw pictures to match. I also knew that my work as a coach had more to do with helping teachers see that their students could do way more than they thought they could. I needed to understand their perspective. That was my only hope of breaking through the resistance.
After spending a few weeks in both classrooms, learning their unique teaching styles and getting to know their students, I suggested we give writing a try. My idea seemed simple enough: let children write. We all know that children, by virtue of being children, live lives rich in wonder and discovery. They embrace curiosity in the same way we adults embrace caution: head on.
But the teachers just shook their heads. No. So I persisted. And one day after school, towards the end of October, their defenses more or less exhausted, the teachers acquiesced.
That night I thought about how when I was a little girl, I used to tuck myself back in the corner of the living room, behind the upholstered chair and up against the dark wood cabinet doors, the photo album heavy in my lap. I knew every page by heart, the clear plastic sheen smudged by my hands. I studied my parents’ faces and the black and white versions of their younger selves. First, as they approached the church, my father in his gray tuxedo squinting into the sun, and then later, both of them holding hands and smiling smiles I’d not seen at the dinner table.
One moment I was the priest looking out at the small gathering of family and friends, and later, reciting the vows and blessing the marriage. The next moment, I was my grandmother standing rigid and proud, unmoved by the camera, wearing a buttoned-up suit, gray in color, with a pill box hat and gloves, standing next to my grandfather, the gentlest man I knew. I was flying above them all. Sitting there, hidden in the corner, I whispered their stories into the air. They were the first stories I ever conceived.
The next morning the teachers and I watched as a hush fell over the classroom, and twenty-six five-year olds busied themselves filling up their papers with pictures and scribbles, strings of letters, and known words. The three of us circled around the room recording the students’ stories on the back of their papers—Ursula playing peek-a-boo with their baby brothers, Michael eating chocolate chip ice cream for breakfast, Jamese burying a beloved cat. “We didn’t know they wanted to write,” the teachers said, shaking their heads softly.
The next day—and for weeks after that—we listened to the children sharpen their words and bear witness to one another’s lives. Sonya wrote about how her grandmother braided her hair, Jeffrey about how he liked to watch the older boys play basketball, Lance about how he missed his mom. The teachers and I started meeting after school to read through the children’s stories, assessing their strengths as writers, and planning what we needed to teach next: What to do if they didn’t know how to spell a word, or why authors liked to use words like bang and drip and squish. It wasn’t long before both teachers were asking me if they could extend the writing time. “Why not?” I asked smiling.
As the year rolled on, we soon discovered that the more we let the children write, the more they wrote their hearts. And the more they wrote their hearts, the more I heard this new voice tumble out of my mouth. It said things like, “Here’s what I think good writers need. Here’s what I think good writers do.” It talked about writing as if I knew it well. I had no idea where it was coming from. I hadn’t written stories since I was a child. I’d never even taken a creative writing class, not as an undergraduate and certainly not as a teacher. By the end of the school year, that same voice told me I wanted to write. That I needed to write.
“I don’t understand it,” I told the principal one afternoon in late May. We were sitting in her office discussing the remarkable growth the kindergarteners had made in writing, and as a result, in reading too. Portraits of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. hung framed behind her desk. Mrs. Preston, herself, was petite and fashionable and fierce.
“I think I want to be a writer,” I said, hesitantly. “But there’s nothing in my life that suggests I’ll be successful.” I’d always considered myself to be one of the lucky ones, that like Mrs. Preston, I had figured it out early. By twenty-five, I’d convinced myself that teaching children to read was my life’s work. Question answered, struggle over. But now I doubted everything. “I tried ignoring it,” I added, “but writing just won’t go away.”
Mrs. Preston’s shoulders softened as a smile broadened across her face. She leaned forward, her fingers twisting a lock of braided hair. “That’s how you know you’ll be successful,” she said, her eyes beaming. “It’s calling you.”
I used to think that commitment was something you did every day in a methodical sort of way. You write every morning before breakfast. You pray every night before sleep. But that year, a bunch of five year olds taught me that commitment isn’t that at all. It isn’t in the doing. Commitment is in the returning.