I tell people that my job is to teach people how to teach people to write. Really what I do is train and supervise a staff of peer writing consultants (aka “tutors”)—students who support other students in all areas of the writing, reading and communication processes. Our mission: to help students become stronger, more confident writers.
Tutors get a ton of training—50 to 60 hours in their first quarter alone. On average, I hire and train 10 new tutors each academic year. I like to mix things up as much as I can. And since I’ve been doing this for six and a half years, I’ve developed all sorts of new ways to help students become confident, compassionate, and capable tutors. I try to keep up with the research that’s coming out on tutor training but, more than anything, I try to be creative, innovative. In the past year I’ve started giving the new tutors (or “newbies,” as we so fondly call them) some writing assignments. We work in a writing center, so we should probably practice what we preach, right?
Anyway, towards the end of their training, I ask the newbies to write their own literacy narratives. Nothing fancy, just a 100-200 word reflection on a moment, something that rests as a tick on their timeline, something that might have, in the tiniest way, been a catalyst that got them to where they are now.
Today I got to hear six newbies read their narratives. They wrote about the writing they did when they were young. They wrote about novels they wrote in grade school. They wrote about their love of books and their discovery of new genres. The goal of the assignment is to get them thinking about the individual as writer and reader. I want them to recognize that each of us has a million stories, and that when they sit down to work with students in the Writing Center, they aren’t just working with a student. They’re working with a person who, long ago, was taught something about reading and writing, something that informed who they are now.
And they got it, quite easily. Then they asked to hear mine. I tried to explain that I give the assignments, I don’t actually do them myself. So I told them about a class I took in grad school, and about a literacy narrative I wrote as an assignment in that class. Then I dug up a file of a close-to-final draft and read it to them.
None of what I just told you is important, though.
What is important is that I heard my own words–my own story–today. I’d written about the first and only books my parents bought my siblings and me when we were kids. It was a set of Word Book Encyclopedias and we all hated them. More, we hated that we’d been given encyclopedias for Christmas. I was probably seven, maybe younger.
My parents still had the encyclopedias and the bookshelf they came with when I moved out when I was 20. I don’t know what happened to them. I doubt my dad still has them. What I do know is that they were barely used. I learned a lot from the S volume, a lot that I should have learned in school, if you know what I mean.
Aside from a few textbooks that my dad used in college when I was little, these were the only books in our house. We weren’t allowed to write in them or dogear the pages. My mom dusted them every week. They became trophies and little more.
Now, about thirty years later, I am surrounded by books—all mine. I’ve read some, but certainly not all of them. Even though I know I will not read some of these books, I still keep them. I like that every room of my house contains books (except the bathroom, because I think that’s gross). This April I brought home 63 from the Seattle Public Library book sale. I pride myself on how many books I own more than how many I’ve read. I pride myself on their imperfect stacks, their mismatched covers, even the dust that collects on the tops of some.
One of the tutors asked me today how having those encyclopedias influenced me as a reader and a writer. I told her that I rarely dogear pages, and that I almost never write in books, and if I do it’s with a fine-tipped pencil. She pressed me a little more and asked how I came to be a writer if I didn’t grow up with books in the house.
The truth is, I’m not sure. I don’t know when things shifted for me. I don’t know when it became okay for me to be surrounded by hundreds of dusty, tattered paperbacks. I don’t know when I got to the point in my life that reading one of those books could spark an idea for a story, or bring comfort when I needed it.
My coworkers all know that I refinish old furniture; I talk about it all the time and like showing off pictures of finished projects. So most of the group knew that I’d recently refinished a 1950’s era Encyclopedia Britannica bookcase. One person asked if the project was especially meaningful because of the story I’d just told.
Of course it was.
I spent several evenings last week turning this:
And what I’ve learned from all of this–from my work, from the narrative I wrote, from reflecting on how I got to this place where I am surrounded by books–is that transformation is very, very important. And the ability to transform containers of knowledge is a very powerful thing.
But what’s even better is the process itself.