This semester I taught a class about creative writers, identity and race. Forty students of wildly different backgrounds, ethnicities, religions and race sat in a huge square in an underground room in a building next to the train tracks midway between Minneapolis and St. Paul. We were strangers to each other. On the first day of class, I gave them a writing-from-life prompt. They wrote quickly and in silence, then some of them read their pieces aloud. The class is over now, and in their final paper, one student wrote of that first day, back in August,
I had no idea that we would all be so comfortable with each other so quickly, especially since it was such a big class. There was a woman who talked about how she missed home and she started crying. To me, that was when the wall sort of came down for everyone and everyone was much more willing to share. I remember that in just one day, there was one man who talked about how his roommate had committed suicide on 9/11 and there was another man that talked about how his father killed his mother. These are major life events that they were sharing to basically complete strangers. That was the most open conversation I’d ever had with other students. These are things that we suppress and don’t want to admit to ourselves, so for people to tell a room full of people that, was amazing.
The instant connection that follows writing and sharing stories has been my experience all the years I’ve been teaching, and it humbles me. Listening to others’ stories always humbles me. Alberto Rios’s beautiful lines in the poem below about how We give because giving has changed us make me think about my life as a teacher and a writer, and about my students, and about all the classrooms I’ve had the honor to sit in, and it’s all I can do not to cry. Stories humble, stories hurt, stories heal.
When Giving Is All We Have
– Alberto Rios
One river gives
its journey to the next.
We give because someone gave to us.
We give because nobody gave to us.
We give because giving has changed us.
We give because giving could have changed us.
We have been better for it,
we have been wounded by it—
Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,
big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.
Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,
but we read this book, anyway, over and again:
Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,
mine to yours, yours to mine.
You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.
Together we are simple green. You gave me
what you did not have, and I gave you
what I had to give—together, we made
something greater from the difference.
For more information on Alberto Rios, please click here.