The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.
When my students first meet me – during private writing intervention sessions as preteens, amid other high schoolers at a workshop or as college freshmen in my English composition course - they think they know what I want from them.
They assume all of my expectations center on how they express themselves in various written assignments. Does it please me or make me feel as if I have “gotten through” when the grammar mistakes lessen and then evaporate, a young man finally trusts the writing process I’ve imparted and begins mastering transition or a budding scientist or engineer (I instruct those too) accepts that her sentence structure needs to be varied?
Yes, I enjoy these silent victories. Do I bust out a private “teacher dance” when a student crafts a fascinating thesis and executes a compelling research paper? Most definitely and without shame.
Yet these significant and priceless triumphs pale in comparison to the larger aha moment that I’m after. There are countless aspects to writing and when I see pieces of this immense puzzle lock into place, particularly when kids are under a level of pressure that is foreign to them, I also see smiles of relief, pride and outright joy. In short, these kind of smaller aha moments look like aha moments. They are crucial and it’s my job to guide students into manifesting these improvements for themselves.
But that’s not the big payoff I seek.
The aha moment providing the most value to students, especially those setting out for a challenging high school journey or their initial quarter/semester of college, looks rather horrible. Sometimes it registers on their faces as shock. For many, it elicits expressions of panic, anxiety, fear or straight up, unfiltered rage. They are pissed that the loving support of others will only get them so far. If I had to express the look of this aha moment in one word, it would be “SHHHHHIIIT!”
This aha moment is a full-on, marrow-in-the-bones realization by students that they, and they alone, are responsible for their educational outcomes and the experiences from which they stem. This includes grades on papers and the overall grades for courses, but it goes so far beyond what could ever show up on a transcript.
A crude translation of the aha moment is: It’s on me. Figuring this out, weaving things together, learning where I need to be and arriving equipped or creating and accessing the resources to arm myself – I have to make this happen. I can get help, but I must seek it out and follow-through. Sometimes I'll get it and sometimes I will barely manage or make a mistake. I'll have to recover again and again - getting better each time.
It further boils down to a basic rule of survival: Do not expect rescue. Why? Because YOU – your thoughts, actions, decisions and the processing of their consequences – are your rescue team.
Now I don’t always get to witness the actual aha moment. It often comes in the wee hours of the morning as a student works on one assignment and understands another is also due. The breakthrough comes during a phone call to a parent who offers support that simply can not result into getting a kid out of a jam. Or they read the comments on their work (genuine, specified feedback is mandated on my part) and understand that at that particular moment, they are leagues away from where they need to be, where they must get, in order to finish the course strong.
Every now and then, I do observe that light bulb explode during class discussion or office hours. It’s akin to watching an avalanche from a semi-safe distance. It is terrible and beautiful to see something so massive and solid collapse to leave a new formation gleaming in its place. In regards to that new formation – the realization of ultimate responsibility doesn’t always result in immediate acceptance. Many students fight what they now know and do so at their peril. Look at them – acting like adults!
In all seriousness, I always hope that this priceless miracle of student nature is timed in a way that works to the learner’s advantage. Timing is everything. College courses are academic do-or-die experiences at more competitive schools, yet there is room for nurturing by instructors. Fortunately, during A Draft Supreme’s suite of Writing Triage services and College Prep as Life Prep sessions, the timing is individualized. The “awakening” occurs in stages so that acceptance can evolve in tandem with realization. This mindset transition, eradicates false confidence to create something much more powerful in its place, happens to a deepening degree with each session. We aim for baby leaps as opposed to baby steps.
And yes, as with an avalanche, sometimes there is messy and extensive aftermath following in the main event. It’s to be expected. In writing, as in life, this is how you know new and real art is being made.
The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.
.:Henry David Thoreau, Walden:.