Today I taught my students how important it is to write stories that really matter to us. “Stories that are important to us will move our readers because we will write with passion and conviction. I’ve been wondering if we used what we notice and note in the stories we read — if we used the signposts during writing time — that would help us find stories that really matter to us,” I told them.
“A long time ago,” I began my “signpost” story, “Ms. J didn’t have an afro. My hair was long and straight.”
They were floored. How could you just be revealing this to us when so many of us have been with you for so long? This is an important detail, Ms. J! How old were you? It was as if I’d failed to tell my very best friends my deepest, darkest secret. . .
“I had been thinking about growing out my natural hair for a very long time, years, but I was afraid. I hadn’t seen it since I was a child and my grandmother decided she was tired of combing it one summer. She let her sister convince her that a relaxer was what what I needed. I wasn’t sure what it would look like, so I hesitated. But, as fate would have it, one summer I was going to college (I was actually doing a summer seminar with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which is basically ‘going to college’ to seven-year-olds.) and my suite mate was a beautiful Gambian woman with an afro so beautiful it looked like a crown. One day I told her how much I liked her hair and how I wish I had the courage to grow mine out. That’s when she told me her hair story. She cut her hair very short, then shaved! her! head! And, you guys, you won’t believe what she said when she looked at herself in the mirror! She stared into her eyes and said, ‘This is the first time I have ever seen you, my face. I didn’t know you were beautiful.’ I could not believe she did not know she was beautiful not only because she was, but also because she had won beauty pageants. She was a beauty queen and she didn’t know she was beautiful. I immediately realized I did not have a choice. It was time to meet myself. I knew what I had to do. . .”
My students were riveted as I showed them photographs of my transformation from colonized hair to the powerful crown God gave me. I wasn’t sure it was working, that such tiny humans would be able to transfer what I was doing to their own work. But as children have been wont to do for the past twenty-two years, they showed me once again that they are the truth. I wasn’t prepared.
“I’m writing about a difficult question. My mom asked me if I wanted to move schools and I chose to stay here with you,” one of my former kindergarteners told me.
Another with a chronic illness said, “I’m writing about the day the doctor finally figured out what was wrong with me. It was an aha moment!”
“I had an aha moment the day my great grandmother died. I’m writing about that,” an old soul in a seven-year-old body told me.
As I walked about to confer with them, one child after another told me with clarity and brilliance what they were doing as writers. I couldn’t believe it, but I also could. Because. . . Because children are the most incredible beings. They are the perfect fusion of truthfulness and fearlessness. They just are.
As I think about the journey from “I went to the Santa Cruz boardwalk and it was fun” stories fourteen days ago to the stories they began to craft today, it all comes down to teaching children to pay attention to what is essential, ask questions about those things, and still more until we find our truths, however slowly. Children do not need their instruction scaffolded until they become helpless to find their own way. They need “stances, signposts, and strategies,” as Dr. Kylene Beers and Dr. Bob Probst wrote, to help them see the world (which is itself a text Freire taught us), notice its details, and name them, so that they can use that knowledge to construct their own knowledge and worlds.
As one of my students wrote to Kylene last year, “I am so. . . happy you found a aha moment is a thing because if it wasn’t a thing I wouldn’t be thinking that hard when I read my books. . . Thank you for thinking really hard. Sincerely, B”
Same, mija. She’s (and Bob, of course) got me thinking really hard, too!