On the first day of school, I set the syllabus and class procedures to the side and start with a simple activity. I tell students that, before they leave my room, they will each write their memoir, their life story. It makes me giggle a bit to see the looks on their faces. They are imagining pages and pages of writing. They are wondering where they would even start. Some are worried that they have nothing of merit to talk about. I quickly calm their fears and tell them that they will be asked to sum up their lives in 6 simple words.
As they start to relax, I talk to them about the six word memoir project and share with them some examples from past students. And, before I know it, they are brainstorming and creating. As a result, I begin the process of getting to know my students in the deepest of ways. Just from six simple words.
I learn that they are frightened and afraid to speak up. “Words in my mouth never complete,” one girl writes. I learn that some of my quietest students, the ones who never actively seek my attention, are the ones who need it the most. “Silence is my only comfort: security” one girl says. A boy sitting in the back corner of the room, by himself, writes, “remember, I have a voice too.” I hear that some of the loudest kids, the ones who come in as bouncy and happy as Tigger, can be hiding some intense pain. “A smile hides all the lies,” one girl says. “More than just a goofy girl,” another warns. A confident, boisterous girl admits, “smiles are more than just smiles.” And a sweet, quiet girl from the back of the room writes, “Face says happy, eyes say pain.” Each student asking me to look deeper, to see them. To see them and their unique story.
Some students expose their truths immediately, and with concise and often cutting, words. One boy challenges his audience with these severe words, “Mom left. Dad left. Y’all tough?” A girl says, “You can’t fix my broken pieces,” almost warning her audience to not even try to see her, to get close to her. And a boy, sitting in the back of the room, says simply: “You wouldn’t understand my story.” In a heartbreaking combination of six simple words another boy asks, “Is anybody alive inside of me?” The words keep coming, from kid after kid after kid. “High expectations, but not high rewards,” one boy laments. “Life’s a maze and you’re trapped,” says one. “Sadness, hurt and not enough love,” the girl in the corner writes. Another says, “Humble mind, hard life, by myself,” showing me a yearning to be seen and to belong.
Some expose anxieties. A girl admits, “I always get way too attached.” A boy worries, not just about himself but for all of us, when he says, “A wall will destroy us forever.” Some worry they will never be enough for others. “My apologies will never be forgiven,” one girl claims. “Being the middle one is hard,” says a boy who always carries a smile on his face.
Others show tragedy and loss. “Family table will never be complete,” one girl writes. And another shows the pain of losing a loved one by saying, “We all miss her every day.” Another girl says, “My life sucks without you here.” One boy shows how overwhelmed he can feel when he says, “Life has always evolved around me.”
Some show themselves to be introverts, living in a private hell of high school, saying: “I hate half the people here,” or “I like youtube more than most people.” One boy fears that he will never been seen for anything but the color of his skin when he says, in five words instead of six, “Just the tall black kid,” as if he fears that is all people see when they see him.
Others put forth a face of hope and conviction. “I refuse to be someone average,” a confident young man asserts. A girl shows resilience by stating, “A broken flower was planted again.” Another knows that, “love is the key to hope.” A boy looks to the future and says, “upcoming rising star on the way,” and a sweet, quiet girl in the back of the room is “waiting for dreams to come true.” One boy shows me what makes him tick by writing, “the wrestling mat is my home.” Some make me giggle by summing up their lives in sentences like, “you can’t pause online games, mom” or “that kid who won’t stop tapping…tap…tap…tippity-tap….tapping.”
In the end, when my students leave my room on the first day of school, I have been offered a rare and wonderful glimpse into their lives and into who they are as individuals. They are each so different in some ways, but so very alike in others. All of them want to be valued, want to be seen and want to feel that their stories matter. It’s a daunting, but oh so wonderful task, to have these students in my charge for the year. They have so much to say and, as one girl put it in her memoir, “six words are just not enough.”