Exploring Memoirs

What an incredible gift we have as teachers: we can give students opportunity that no one else can.

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In my Modern Woman Writers class we are reading The Woman Warrior (who would have thought). Although this book is written mostly through fictional stories, it is still a memoir – which begs the question: what even is a memoir?

I love how Maxine Hong Kingston writes these fictional stories in her memoir. Mainly, it makes sense because she was told stories when she was growing up and by telling her own stories, and versions of old ones, she can tell her own journey throughout life. It’s fascinating because  a memoir isn’t an autobiography. It’s its own thing, which makes writing one so interesting. I have the freedom to write this however I want. One, because it is my memoir, and two because I get to tell it how I need to tell it. There’s no set structure for writing a memoir.

For example, if I was writing a five paragraph essay I would include a thesis, some topic sentences, five paragraphs of course, a nice conclusion, maybe some MLA format, and some other characteristics and boom I have a five paragraph essay (though it may not be cohesive or entirely well put together).

But a memoir is so different.

Think of  Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison. She writes in small stories; they are real stories, but she writes them through a narrative of her own life. Each small story helps create a better, well-rounded statement that she continues throughout her book: she is her own self and owns herself in more ways than one. Granted, this is only one view of her narrative, but her stories come together to tell an overarching theme. Kingston also does this.

Which is interesting. The stories seem to be different and talk about different situations, but when we look at it as a whole they seem to come together like pieces on a jig saw puzzle. I don’t know if they thought of this when they started to write their memoir, but it is extremely intricate to have several stories somehow all connect and make sense in the end. Coming into this process it seems a bit daunting because it sounds like a lot of planning prior to writing. Personally, I like to write in the moment where the emotion is most palpable – so it is hard to plan and then somehow come back to that emotion.

Also, my memoir needs to somehow connect to education and I am not sure how I want to go about that. I have thought of crots (what a funny word, right?) It’s a term  in literature for when you write small sections of a story and then break it up and change to a different part of the story. I would’ve never called it that, but nonetheless, crots. I think this might be more effective because I’m thinking of focusing on my touchstone belief that students come first. I think I could approach this task by writing the small moments that influenced this belief and fostered it.

It is kind of a sad story. It all happened slowly and in small moments, but they built up. I could see the absence of joy in my teachers, the neglect towards the students, the political turmoil – it all just built up, and made me burst. I wrote a poetry slam. I wrote an opinion piece. I wrote a news article. I recited it in front of a public board meeting. I recited it in front of my fellow students. I wrote a graduating speech in honor of the struggle. I fought. And I fought.

And it was hard and exhaustive. I just wanted them (them being the administrators, and the district board members) to understand the value I had in my teacher. I wanted them to understand that I wasn’t just another statistic to prove they were a “successful” school. I wanted them to understand that I could be something more than they told me I could be. I wanted something more from them. I brought conflict to the principals. I fought for my fellow students. I fought for myself.

But nothing really happened.

I said my slam, or the shortened version because it had to be less than two minutes, to the board members. I said my speech, to which they condescendingly affirmed that I should have “respect.” I published my slam and my articles in our school newspaper. And I graduated.

I was told I left some “legacy” behind – which sounds so weird now. But I was a political little fighter because I saw a need that wasn’t being met: the students weren’t valued. And if they were, they were only valued by the teachers. But once the teachers weren’t valued by their bosses, the conflict bled into the classroom and everyone could feel it. I didn’t want anyone to worry anymore. I wanted my favorite teachers to be happy.

I asked several teachers why they stayed at that school. They had no contract. They had no support. Administrators would try to get them fired. Parents would blame them for their students’ grade. Every day there was something else to make them feel unwelcomed and unwanted.

So I asked why they stayed. And every single one of them said the same thing.

“The students.”

How crazy?!

The students. They stayed because they valued their students, amazing concept, right? But seriously. They stayed for their students. They worked without contract. They worked through the disrespect. The worked through the manipulation. All because they loved their students and they wanted them to have the opportunity to be something.

What an incredible gift we have as teachers: we can give students opportunity that no one else can. There is value in teaching and there is value in students.

I think I just found what I want to write about.

2 thoughts on “Exploring Memoirs

  1. I would love to see your slam if you still have a copy of it! But I completely agree, students are the most valuable part of school- I mean why in the world would we have teachers is there weren’t students? Every single teacher I’ve sat down to talk about what being a teacher really means says that they’ve considered quitting multiple times, but right after they decided they want to stop students pop into their minds and they decide to continue. In a way, it’s sad that so many teachers feel this way about education but I find it remarkable that every single educator says “I stay for the kids.” I’m really looking forward to reading your memoir! 🙂

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  2. I canNOT WaIt to read more! I can relate to the points of staying for the students. Teachers are often subjected to feeling like if they move on to a better job they would be abandoning a whole group of very impressionable young people. I kind of felt this when I had to leave my bible students to come to college, it was hard and I still miss my students, but we did all come to a mutual understanding that we all needed to move on. Keep writing girl! You’re doing great!

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