With thanks to my good friend Jude for today’s photograph
“I thought I’d share my poem with you, Ms. Fancy Writer…I was upset and came home and started writing…It turned into the first poem of my life,” my friend wrote.
Shyly, he shared a poem about something that meant a lot to him—a piece that may never end up in a literary anthology but one that will, even better, tell an important story to his children and his grandchildren.
I was moved by his poem, and I was touched that he trusted our friendship enough to share it.
This experience is a departure from what we English teachers are accustomed to hearing. More often, people say, “Oh, you’re an English teacher? I’d better watch my grammar. I was never very good in English.”
I’ve heard this comment for years. In the beginning I didn’t take it seriously. I’d laugh and explain that I grew up in Appalachia with a father who butchered the language and a mother who knew the rules of grammar but seldom employed them in conversation.
It’s only now that my father is gone and my mother’s speech has been rendered mostly unintelligible by a stroke that I miss their rich vernacular. While neither spoke standard English, Dad could tell a story filled with vivid imagery and colorful colloquialisms, and Mom, when the need arose, could write a letter to her children that let us know the depth of her disappointment, the boundlessness of her pride, the fierceness of her love for us.
After a few years in the classroom, I learned that all of us can speak and write when we believe we have something important to say. And it bothers me more than a little that there are probably children I’ve taught who’ve grown up believing that they’re not very good at interpreting literature or writing their thoughts because I unwittingly sent that message to them in red ink.
Somewhere along the way I switched to a purple pen, and when my students asked why, I told them that I felt that the red made it look as if I’d bled the comments onto their papers—that their words had wounded me. But I’m not sure changing the color of the ink helped that much. We teachers sometimes send the message to our students that great literature is a mystery only English teachers can unlock, that writing is a skill that most of them can never hope to master.
And mine is not the only profession that unintentionally sends the message that great writing is only for the erudite. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that people aren’t reading as often and are going to church even less.
While many ministers stress the importance of reading the Scripture, they, too, sometimes inadvertently send the message that to truly understand, we must have the holy texts elucidated for us from the pulpit. The churches of my childhood emphasized the importance of praying and reading the Bible daily. But they allowed no room for questioning their interpretation. The more progressive churches of my adulthood encourage reading and prayer, but many congregants give little thought to daily devotions between Sundays.
I was one of those congregants, even when I first served as an Elder. I left the churches of my childhood feeling guilty for questioning. I came to the denomination I chose in adulthood to hear that it was okay, even good, to question a Bible I’d largely stopped reading. And it would be most of a lifetime before I found my way back to the stories that first caused me to ask life’s biggest questions.
For me, the journey began again when my daughter was a teenager. It had been one of those frustrating days as a parent, the details of which I no longer recall. If you’re a parent, you know the kind: You try reason and logic, you struggle to maintain your own ability to think clearly, and she storms away from you and slams the door of her bedroom. You stand on the outside of the closed door, trying to decide whether to demand that the door be opened or to walk away until you’re both more rational.
I sat down at the computer and typed the first of what would become hundreds of meditations for my daughter—not about laws but about love. And as I pored over the holy texts for stories and verses that would speak to her questions and challenges, I found my way closer to the God I’ll never fully fathom.
But neither will any minister I’ve ever met. And I have profound respect for those leaders who stand before us and admit their doubts, their questions—the ones who inspire us to look into the darkness to find the light, even when it waxes and wanes like the reflected light of the moon.
And perhaps, like my friend who wrote the first poem of his life, in the midst of our turmoil, we’ll find the lyrical, creative Spirit that awaits a yearning heart.