When I first pulled into the parking lot at Broad Ripple High School in September, my hands shook and my heart raced as I fretted over whether or not I had parked in the right lot. Would my car be towed? How would I get back to campus? Breathe Meghan, remember to breathe. I exhaled deeply, unaware until that moment that I had been holding my breath as I walked around to the front of the building, not yet privy to the shortcut of the backdoor buzzer. Everything on that first day proved unfamiliar and rather terrifying as I walked through the halls of a high school three times the size of my own alumna mater, searching aimlessly for room B367. Wearing a bright orange visitor badge plastered to my shirt and an anxious expression across my face I felt like a bit of an outsider, an intruder of sorts. When Logan asked for a couple of volunteers to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I jumped at the opportunity. Having something to do with my hands, something to concentrate on was just what I needed. I started to settle into the soothing simplicity of the task. And then I watched, mouth agape as over fifty students piled into room B367, a knife full of peanut butter in one trembling hand. I stared incredulously as more and more students entered the room, quickly filling the few round tables and squeezing into the back corners where the lab tables stood. I tried to focus on the task at hand. Grab a slice of bread. Spread peanut butter. Hand to the Butler student standing next to me doing the jelly. Grab another slice of bread. The room was loud, deafening and I feared I was in over my head.
Despite the pandemonium of the first few sessions at Broad Ripple, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how quickly and easily we fell into a routine. The numbers dropped slightly, allowing for a close-knit community of creative writers to form. The sheer talent and ability within room B367 is astounding. At Open Mic we are treated to skits and songs in addition to the traditional reading of stories and poems. One student played a song of his own creation on his violin. With the growing sense of community, my own fears and anxieties lessened. A few girls would seek me out each week, often with the latest pages of a story for me to read. To know that these girls felt comfortable enough to share their writing with me and for one girl in particular to allow me to read her story for her at Open Mic made me feel that I had done something right. I wasn’t sure what it was. I couldn’t pin point one particular action, I couldn’t coin one particular phrase. And I realized that there was no sure method to mentoring, no guaranteed model to follow. I could only be myself. As a mentor I believe that is the most important lesson I can teach my students, the greatest piece of wisdom I can impart—to be yourself. Each student possesses his or her own individual voice as a writer, his or her own style and way of writing. It is tempting to compare ourselves and our work with others, to let our insecurities get the better of us. Over the past few months it has been remarkable to watch as students discover and embrace their inner voice, to watch as students who once insisted they had nothing to write suddenly realize they have something to say. Each class we seem to have to begin Open Mic a little earlier to accommodate the growing number of students wishing to read their work aloud. Students who were once terrified to stand in front of their peers have begun to find the courage amidst this embracing and supportive community. Some stand with their back turned to the audience or with their head bent closely over their paper. Many are still frightened and their voice may quiver. Yet they read in spite of their fear, in spite of their shaking hands and trembling tones. And this act of courage is truly inspiring. There are students who are still not ready to face the open stage and there are days when students struggle to concentrate on their writing or find the right words. Yet they keep coming back, they continue to make progress, and their passion, their love for writing and creative expression never wavers.
One might assume that as mentors we are supposed to be the teachers, the motivators. But it is truly the students and their resilient enthusiasm for writing that educate and inspire us. Through Writing in the Schools I have been reawakened to the beauty and pleasure of the art of writing that I had grown disenchanted from after years of workshop and criticism. I have been reminded how fun writing can be if you push aside the fears and insecurities and embrace writing at its rawest, most passionate form.
Meghan Crawford is a graduate student in the MFA Creative Writing program.