When I Learned to Write

I’ll never forget the second day of AP Language and Composition. Even though it will be 21 years ago this August, I remember the classroom and where I was sitting. We were still at the old campus that had been built in the 1960s, and the classrooms opened to the outside, something you never see today in this age of air conditioning and school shootings. This classroom was along the east side of the campus, just down from the main office and across from the gym. The buildings were ugly, functional masses of brown brick, so we didn’t have much of a view, but at least there were no foul-smelling Bradford Pear trees like there were outside my sophomore English classroom facing the courtyard. I sat in the front row, just off center as I always did. A chalkboard with an agenda for the day was directly in front of me, and there was an occasional breeze blowing in through the windows that provided a respite from the oppressive Arkansas heat and humidity.

Our summer reading had included Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Scarlet Letter, and we had been given a prompt and asked to bring our completed essay in response to it to the first day of class, which I dutifully did. The next day, Mr. Graham turned on the overhead projector to reveal an essay splashed with red ink. I quickly recognized it as my own. My emotions volleyed violently between embarrassment and pride. For 15 minutes or so, Mr. Graham proceeded to use my essay as an example of the kind of writing we were going to do in the coming year, praising and gently critiquing in turn as he moved from paragraph to paragraph. A straight-A student and people-pleaser by nature, I was used to having my work praised by teachers, tacked up on bulletin boards or ceremoniously returned to me in front of my peers. I was not used to having my work dissected in front of my classmates, and I didn’t quite know what to make of Mr. Graham singling me out like this in the first week of class. Was I a good writer or not?

This is not so much a story of how I learned to read or write but instead the story of how I came to understand how writing allows us to be our most authentic and most vulnerable, and how that allows us to connect with others. Before that first week in AP Language and Composition, to me writing was just a thing we were asked to do in school that I happened to very good at. To excel in math, I had to spend hours breaking down sample problems to understand how they worked; in English class, I always just seemed to know instinctively when to use a comma or exactly which word to use or the best way to organize an essay. And so, while my grades and the writing I produced suggested that I understood how to use language, that was far from the truth. Writing was very transactional: I produced the essays that were expected of me and I received praise and rewards in return. But Mr. Graham never treated writing this way, as I soon discovered. To him, my writing wasn’t a thing to be evaluated and tacked up on the wall—it was an extension of who I am as a person. Over the course of that year in his class, my relationship to my writing began to change, and I began to realize that I could use my writing ability to connect with people. Little did I know then that this would be the foundation of a career in higher education.

When I found out that I had been placed into Grimsley Graham’s class, I was over the moon. Mr. Graham had taught at Rogers High for years and was something of a legend. He wasn’t like the other teachers—he was cool in all of the ways we thought college professors would be. He wrote poetry and talked about going to readings in the hip, liberal college town down the road. He always had a cup of coffee in hand, and our papers would come back with arc-shaped coffee stains on them. He rode his bike to school. He played music when we had writing time or were doing peer review, though we’d giggle when it turned out that Enya or the Dave Matthews Band would be the soundtrack to our labors. He’d pull up a chair by his desk and talk to us individually about our writing. He assigned books that made many parents clutch their pearls, like Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses.

One of our assignments in APLAC (you have to say that like the duck in the AFLAC commercials, that’s the rules) was a creative essay that challenged us to experiment with vivid language and rich description. I didn’t see myself as much of a creative writer and preferred more analytical writing, so I decided to have a little fun with the assignment and write about a recent trip I’d made with the cross country team. Rogers has a legacy of state championships in cross country stretching back decades, and Mr. Graham had been a part of that as the coach throughout the 1980s. To be completely honest, I was hoping that pandering a little might make up for my lack of creative ability and my unwillingness to even try.

The cross country team had just come back from running a big race at Rim Rock Farm at the University of Kansas—a beautiful course with golden fields as far as the eye can see; picturesque, wooded trails; and wide open blue skies. But on our team run to check out the course the day before the race, the peaceful, idyllic scene was disrupted as a litany of colorful phrases drowned out the sounds of nature. One moment we were jogging together, and the next our coach was rolling on the ground, clutching his ankle, and yelling profanities. This moment became the focal point of my essay.

The thing about Coach and what made this funny was that he was a dorky, goofy, 40-something prematurely bald guy who motivated us with inspirational quotes and disappointed looks. He rarely raised his voice, and so you knew you were in trouble when you heard him yell “Dagum! Pay attention!” and maybe, if he was really ticked off, he’d throw a clipboard on the ground for effect. As I suspected, Mr. Graham quite enjoyed the way I poked fun at his successor. Word got out about my literary triumph, and it eventually made it back to Coach, who read a bit of the essay at our awards banquet at the end of the season. Somehow my silly essay had connected with people. Looking back, I realize now that my Rim Rock essay was the first time I allowed myself to let my writing to be an extension of myself—ironic since I had written it as a joke because I was so uncomfortable with writing things that were in any way personal.

As I began to see the potential for connecting with people through written language, I also began to experience how talking about the act of writing can connect people. My senior year I moved on to AP Literature with a different teacher, and we all moved on to a brand-new campus. One of my teammates and best friends was in Mr. Graham’s class this time around, and over lunch in the commons, we’d often talk about what they were working on. Over time, those conversations turned into impromptu writing consultations, and joking about how my friend could pander to Mr. Graham by writing about our team antics gave way to looking over rough drafts together. Our friendship deepened that year as we got to know each other through writing. Without knowing it, I was beginning to do myself what Mr. Graham had been modelling for us in his teaching and mentorship. I had stopped treating writing as something to be produced and had begun to treat it as a means of connection and of being human.

It was with the Rim Rock essay that I began to really learn how to write. By my senior year, I had decided to major in English in college. I had a vague interest in teaching but really my decision was driven by language’s power to bring individuals into community. And that is entirely because of Mr. Graham. There wasn’t a single moment or conversation, but my decision was the result of a year’s worth of tiny moments that I still remember so vividly. There was that day that Mr. Graham picked my essay out of all the others to share in class. There was the first time he held conferences during class time, inviting me to pull up a chair to talk through a rough draft of an essay I was working on. There were all of the thoughtful comments on my papers, many of them questions that prompted me to think more deeply about a claim or observation. There were all of the times he took me aside after class to tell me about opportunities to share my writing through contests or student publications, or to encourage me to sign up for a workshop or apply to Governor’s School in language arts. There was the Rim Rock essay.

Over the years, I have found community through writing in many places. In writing centers and writing classrooms, of course, but also among peers and, later, colleagues. I found professors with whom I would converse about language and literature and human connection in office hours and in classes and in the margins of my drafts. I found in the Honors College at the University of Central Arkansas a community with both physical and metaphorical spaces to discuss and debate philosophy, politics, and literature with my peers. Later, as a graduate student and then faculty member, I found community in writing and reading groups and impromptu conversations between classes or at happy hour. My relationships with people began to grow out of discourse and language rather than proximity. I’ve always been a very intense, serious person, and I don’t let many people get to know me. In Mr. Graham’s class I learned how to use language to connect with people, and my life has been so much richer than I could have ever imagined because of that.