I can’t take credit for my students’ smiling enthusiasm; it’s how they walked in on the very first day. Part of it, no doubt, came from their seeing Sister Siobhan’s familiar and well-loved face, but even the “newbies,” as she calls them, came with the same shining zest.
So this is how we begin: everyone’s in a good mood, they’ve all brought their notebooks and pens (and lately, the work they’ve been yielding in their off-hours) and we sit in a circle. There’s a low table in the center of the room that Siobhan and I put a different random object on each week. The students open their journals and write for ten minutes about whatever that object brings to mind. Some of them get up and touch it. Some barely look at it. But everybody keeps a pen moving.
Choosing the object is more difficult than it sounds—it can’t contain metal or terminate in sharp edges; it can’t be food; it can’t be a hardcover book. I’m constantly amazed by how much of what I own falls into those categories. And when it comes to apartment décor, you might call me a minimalist (but really I’m just broke). So last week found me pacing around my bedroom, opening drawers full of gas bills and old essays I’ll never have time to revise, trying to find something that would pass ACJ security.
Finally, in the bottom of a dusty box on the bottom shelf of my bookstand, I found a small pair of binoculars that my grandfather gave me twenty years ago. He’s always been a birdwatcher, and he gave them to me during one of our outings in some distant childhood summer. I put them in my canvas teacher bag and ran out the front door. It was 6:30 am.
I’m going to say something true that I’m ashamed of: I almost always regret volunteering. After the initial rush of self-congratulatory warmth fades away in that space between Sign Up and Show Up, I start kicking myself. I’m too busy for this, dammit. I work two part-time jobs. I leave early in the morning and come home late at night. I organize and execute events for my writing program. I serve on five boards and committees, run three times a week, maintain a long-distance relationship, go out for beers with friends, and juggle three graduate classes, one of which will largely determine the course of my writing career. I should be focused on that class 24/7, but I’m lucky to find an hour a day for it. So when Sunday night looms and I’m as tired as I was on Friday and I’m behind on all my assignments and I still need to plan a lesson, I’ll be honest—sometimes I struggle with it.
Last week my students sat down around my grandfather’s binoculars and wrote. They joked and laughed a little like they always do—like I want them to—but after a few minutes of that (and of looking at each another through the long-distance lenses), the room fell silent save for the scratch of pens on wide-ruled paper.
When they finished, I asked volunteers to share. The quality of what they put out during this exercise is consistently stunning—not a patronizing, look-at-these-precious-amateurs-trying-to-write stunning, but a wow-how-did-he-do-that-on-the-fly-I-must-be-a-complete-failure-as-a-writer stunning. A few students read what they wrote aloud, and it was as good as it always is. As we wrapped up, Vic—a student with more natural talent than probably anyone I’ve met—raised his hand and asked to read.
His piece opened with a few details about the binoculars, then a few about the person who broke his heart, then a few more about being in jail. Then he said this:
“People go birdwatching
to remember what they looked like
before someone ripped their wings off.”
Maybe it’s less impressive seeing it filtered here through me than it was live and in the moment, but here’s what I need you to understand: when Vic read those lines, this program lived up to its name. For a couple of moments, ACJ disappeared. The speaker in the ceiling—the one that interrupts our class every few minutes—broke. The windows in the hallway shattered. The commanding officers all went home. Outside, the razor-wire fences shook and shuddered and finally fell until there was only us—twelve guys and the irreplaceable Sister Siobhan—doing something that felt important on a late-fall afternoon.
This is why I’ll come back, even when there’s never time. This is why I’ll plan the best lessons I can for them—not simply because they deserve it (which they do), but because even a few guys locked away in red jumpsuits can bring art into the world. This is how, as my students stroll in with their unceasing brightness, I can look up from shuffling papers or writing something on the board and know, for the next few hours, exactly how they feel. Because I’m as excited as they are.
-Ryan Rydzewski, Teacher