I have tried to write this post at least a dozen times since mid-December. The pressure in realizing that this post would be the first of the year for Two Writing Teachers had me, at first, just jotting a few thoughts, random words, hoping to conjure an idea that would be worthy of your first read of 2023.
Then life happened.
About two weeks ago, our mountain well went out. At the same time, I passed an awful winter cold onto both my husband and my daughter. Feverish and frustrated, we showered at a hotel before we finished out the semester still without water.
A week later, abandoning the ideas I had jotted before the rug of convenience was pulled out from under me, something new began to take shape. I started to draft this post in between trips to the neighbor’s to fill five-gallon containers, runs to the laundromat to wash (not dry) three or four loads at a time, and minutes spent scrubbing dishes camp-style out of the sports jug at the side of the sink.
I used words in that first draft like tears and weary and broken. I wrote about how I dreaded those first moments back from break, the ones where we share highlights from our weeks away from school. How the dark cloud of my waterless-ness would surely cast its shadow over my colleagues’ trips to Disney, ski vacations, happy hours, and holiday parties. I wrote about empathy for our students and how I wanted those first moments back to be different for all of us. Still miles from having something to publish, I told myself to come back to it another day, not wanting to start the year out—for me or for you—on this note.
The next time I sat down to write, I was a few days past a temporary fix of the well. Basking in the glow of cleanliness and convenience, I revised that first draft to focus on the silver linings: the cinnamon rolls that filled our home with joy on Christmas morning, the Monopoly marathon that brought laughter back to the dining room, and a spring-like snow that sent my daughter to the sledding hill.
The more I revised, however, the more I felt like I was somehow betraying my true experience. To write from this pedestal of positivity seemed to diminish the weary and the worry, to sweep it under the rug, leaving only the “Insta-worthy” post behind.
I just couldn’t do it. So, once again, I got up and committed to try another day.
This time, I came back to an idea I had jotted early on, an idea about how writing can heal us. It centered around a student whose house burned down while he was at school in the third grade. A boy who—finally two years after the tragedy—wrote about it from his seat in my fifth-grade classroom. Shared about the worst moments of his young life and how his cat was unaccounted for at the end of that day. I blogged about how honored and grateful I am that the conditions in our workshop made it possible for him to write through his feelings. I felt, with this draft, that I might be onto something.
Then our well failed for a second time. It was this two-steps-back, punch-in-the-gut moment that helped me see the connection between this fifth-grader’s experience and my own; it brought the true message of this post to light.
I am in no way suggesting that my loss of water (twice)—especially while I was still capable of jug-filling, toilet-flushing, laundry-doing, and away-from-home-showering—is as bad as it gets. And I am not so foolish to think that one workshop worth of writing might be enough to bring someone through the toughest times.
I am thinking about how we create the conditions every day to invite both life’s peaks and valleys into our class- and conference rooms, into our “Winter News” reports and connection circles, into our workshops and our writing.
I am thinking about returning to school next week. This time, with a new perspective. You see, I am responsible for the staff meeting that will bring us back together at the start of that first day. And where I once might have begun with a prompt that asks everyone to share a favorite moment from their time away from school, I think, instead, I’ll take a page from Brené Brown’s playbook and ask everyone for a two-word check in:
Two words—any two words—to defy what I might have done to unintentionally perpetuate the “highlight reel” of human connection. Two words—any two words—to intentionally welcome back the full-range of human experience.
Maybe we’ll quickwrite using one or both words at the start of our meeting. Maybe we’ll find a partner to share the tell the stories behind them. Maybe teachers will use this activity in the days that follow to model for students how a single word (or two) can help us get back into the routines of workshop.
Maybe by reaching deeper with our own connections, with our own topics, our students and colleagues will find the safety they need to share about their ups and their downs. You see, in order for that fifth-grader to write about being reunited with his cat, he had to write about the fire that made him afraid in the first place. In order for me to find gratitude for a well almost at-the-ready, I had to write about the tears and the weariness.
To start the year with a worthy post—I didn’t need to wait for life to get out of the way; I didn’t need to work around it—I needed a space to write through it. How might our workshops offer the same for our students and colleagues?
I’d love to hear how you plan to welcome back your staff and students, their highs and lows, and everything in between! Please, share in the comments!
From all of us here at Two Writing Teachers: May the new year bring you more ups than downs and a safe space in which to write through it all!