Two years ago, I walked into a room full of middle school students as a volunteer with The Writer’s Den – a club that only had about 7-8 consistent members. I was nervous at the idea of having to teach students about creative expression and storytelling. I was afraid they would think it was a waste of their time. I was afraid they’d BS their way through the work we’d give them. I was afraid of a lot of things, but most of all, I was afraid I wouldn’t do what I and the other members wanted to do: to guide, to inspire, to give these students a space to think and put themselves on paper.
Today, I experienced the same emotions and fears as Mary, Kate and I walked into the high school. It was The Writer’s Den’s first time teaching to high school students (This year, we’ve expanded to three weekly classes and have an outreach of more than 200 members), and I was afraid it would be more challenging, more difficult.
It ended up being inspiring – one of those times when by talking to them about why they write, I am reminded of why I write as well.
The question we explored today was: What does creative expression mean to you?
Mary and Kate gave amazing answers, talking about how it was a way to face the reality of their emotions. I had been thinking about the question for a while, and I couldn’t come up with an answer. I don’t think I can still. Creative expression means everything; it’s a form of existence that bends and spins and flows and falls and rises and suspends.
When we asked the students to write their responses, we walked around and talked to them about how it is they expressed themselves.
“How do you express yourself?”
“Crying mostly. Just crying.”
“Is there any other way when you feel like crying doesn’t work?”
She talked to me about music and how it was a shared creativity and experience between herself and the artist.
I went to the student beside her.
“And how do you express yourself?”
“I don’t have the time to.”
“What about before? You must have had some form of time before?”
She told me about dancing and how she had to stop when she got a job.
“And you?” I said to the guy sitting in the corner of the room.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you like to do?”
“I like to skate.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I feel a sense of freedom. I feel like I can do whatever I want to do whenever I want to do.”
I told him that’s why I write. Because I feel like I can make anything happen whenever I want it to happen. We talked about freedom and how creative expression is a form of it. And then we talked about the times when we can’t quite express it, and we’d feel stuck.
I talked to an artist who likes drawing with pens, a mother who wrote just to write, a daughter who decided to bury herself in work rather than write, a rapper who felt more comfortable free styling his response in front of the whole class instead of writing it down on paper, who talked to me about the natural connection to rhythm and words, who asked us later: “Why are you doing this. Why are you here, teaching us?”
They ask tough questions. And I felt stuck. (Thankfully Mary started answering the question, and what she said hit a note and made me remember, really remember why it is I personally do this.)
“Is this for like school? For credit?” the student continued to ask.
“No, it’s not for anything. It’s because we just want to do it. Our club wants to — you know how it seems like you’re learning all this stuff about grammar and reading comprehension and all these really important things?”
I saw a few heads nod and continued, “Well we feel like sometimes, it’s really hard to do these other creative things because you don’t have the time for it. So we’re here to offer you that time and that space, for you to put your emotions and yourself onto paper.”
I don’t know if we will make a difference with the students, and this entire year ahead terrifies me. But I do know why it is I love to teach. It’s not just that I want to inspire them, but that I always find myself walking out of the class inspired by them, and being a hell lot of a better writer because of them.