The Power of Language

My juniors and I are currently reading Kindred, and this week we're studying the power of language. We've read some fabulous pieces about how language is used to oppress, how a word can change meanings based on the context, and today we read about how language can offer restoration as we read Jimmy Santiago Baca's essay, "Coming into Language." My students were captivated as we read the piece out loud. It's a powerful piece that leaves me breathless each time I read it. Tonight they are writing about their experiences with language--how the written or spoken word has impacted them. I'm anxious to read their pieces. As a whole, they're kind of a hesitant group. I'm not sure they've been asked to do much personal writing or sharing of their writing. They were very panicky about this, so I  had to give them a pep talk about the importance of sharing our work and experiences in order to build community and learn from one another's experiences. I'm still not sure they completely bought into it...

I told them I'd write my own piece and bring it to class to share. I've done this before with them, and each time they're a bit taken aback, and I can tell that some find it unnerving that their teacher is sharing a piece of her life with them. So tomorrow I'll unnerve them again by sharing this piece:

It was my senior year, and I was 17. My close friends, the ones who saw the real me--the me without the mask--had graduated and left for college or to pursue jobs, and I was left behind in my dusty, factory speckled town. A usual symptom of youth is a discontentedness with one's community, and I was no exception. I couldn't wait to leave. I didn't know where I wanted to go, but I knew I wanted out. Feeling a bit abandoned, I took to reading books. I read Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut, John Steinbeck, and Jack Kerouac among others. I pictured myself hoboing with Kerouac, and time traveling to be a fruit-picker in California, and for the first time I dreamed of becoming a writer. I ate lunch with Steinbeck--outside when the weather was nice leaning on a tree that sat near the front of my high school or inside on an 80s looking wooden cube--carpeted on top and with rounded edges that sat in front of my English classroom. I rekindled my childhood love-affair with the public library and spent afternoons after school reading on the floor upstairs where it was the quietest. My previous three years of high school had been incredibly social, but this year I became more introverted and found a sort of peace in this newfound solitude. Perhaps it was because I wasn't really alone; my books provided me with companionship. At the end of the year, I found myself declaring a major in English. I was to be a modern beatnik poet--without all the hitchhiking. For a graduation gift, a family friend gave me a dark brown leather journal. The cover was soft and the pages inside were crisp and earth-toned. I spent that summer writing pages of poems and songs and later took it with me to college--those pages helped me process some difficult moments in life: a troubling relationship and later a devastating heartbreak, an unexpected bout of homesickness, a wild phase where I tested my limits with alcohol, and eventually self discovery. Books and writing carried me to new places within myself I didn't know existed before that year. And still, when I let them, they sweep me up in a wave of introspection that muddies the waters but almost always leaves me feeling clean and calm afterwards. 

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