A Valentine to my Students
The below essay was published on The Buffalo News viewpoints page. I wrote another Valentine essay to other people who occupy the core of my heart for Next Avenue. I will share that here next week. Happy, Healthy, Loving Valentine's Day to all of you.
My View: A Valentine to my Students by Nancy Davidoff Kelton Feb 7, 2022 Spring semester is underway. The members of my advanced writing workshop have all renewed
their vows. Some have been my students for fifteen years. I tease them about growing old together, but I believe they are continuing the journey because they continue to grow.
I do. Oscar Hammerstein II opened “Getting to Know You” from “The King and I” with “It’s a very ancient saying, but a true and honest thought, that if you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.”
My students have been teaching me since 1970. My first first-graders in a Lower East Side public school taught me, initially with their differences. Sean – reading on fifth-grade level before we met – and Danny – living with his mother and five siblings in a one-room apartment, arriving late every morning, exhausted, hungry, wearing shorts and shoes with no laces – needed extra attention.
The veteran teacher who trained and observed me said I had empathy. Yes. I treasured my connection to my 6-year-old pupils. We had what my grandmother called “great rappaport.”
That teacher also said I was "weak in the discipline department." Also true. With experience, I became stricter and cultivated a mix of tenderness and toughness.
I remind my present adult writing students not to compare themselves to our class’s Seans. The range among them is big. I know each one’s struggles and progress.
I remind them – and myself– about the difference between self-revelation and self- absorption. It is the difference between "ah-ha" and "oy vey." Sentences beginning with “I” tell. They do not show. They distance writers from the reader, from themselves, and belong in psychotherapy, not in personal essays expressed from the heart.
Avoiding the truth or writing around it does not work. Years ago, the first assignment was an open letter to a person the student knew well but would not mail, sharing something difficult. One student wrote to Christopher Columbus, saying that had he taken another route, life would have been different.
I asked this student to write a second letter to someone he knew, expressing something hard. He wrote to his eight-year-old son, whom he had not seen in years since divorcing his mother, sharing his sorrow, telling him he slept holding his picture, asking for forgiveness. This second letter, which I read aloud, choked up the entire class. I made suggestions on how he could improve it, and read his next two revisions. He sent it to his son, whom he began to see, changed the format to a straightforward essay and had it published.
Writing is hard. Harder than talking about it. I remind students and myself to write regularly, persevere, revise, and revise.
Hemingway revised the ending of “A Farewell to Arms” forty-nine times. I revise again and again, advising my class to do the same, in order to say it better, clear up clutter and go deeper. The 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal said about a letter he sent that he would have made it shorter, but he didn’t have the time.
Honesty and passion are critical. Reading one’s work alone and out loud helps. If it makes the writer yawn, it will bore readers more.
I love providing a safe place, and a mix of toughness and tenderness. My students and I have “great rappaport.”