2017 Winner of the Bechtel Prize
Author Garth Greenwell selected M.K. Rainey’s essay, “I Hate Writing: On the Necessity of Being Vulnerable,” as the recipient of the 2017 Bechtel Prize. Teachers & Writers Collaborative awards the Bechtel Prize to the author of an exemplary essay that explores themes related to creative writing, arts education, and/or the imagination.
Commenting on his selection of Rainey’s essay, Greenwell wrote, “I admire how vividly this essay communicates the joy found in classrooms that privilege discovery and experimentation, and the profound wonder of those moments when skeptical students realize the usefulness of literature for their lives. The writing is so skillful, so nimble and fleet, that the lessons on offer are never ponderous or didactic; this essay wears its wisdom lightly, and is all the more powerful for it.”
“I hate writing.”
The room is small and fluorescently lit and crammed with thirty or so gangly teenage bodies in uniform and I blink, feel the words bounce off my back. I turn and find the source, two eyes with lids at half-mast directed my way.
“What’s your name?”
She sucks on the inside of her cheek like I’m wasting her time.
“Awesome,” she says. I pause.
“Awesome,” I say.
Her surrounding cohort giggles and the girl grins. I nod.
“Good to meet you, Awesome.”
I turn my attention back to the class.
“I hate writing,” she says again.
I glance back over my shoulder.
“Awesome,” I say.
It’s midday and the cafeteria is alive with the thrum of girls, young women, swapping knowledge and gossip like peanut butter sandwiches, a greasy, fried smell hanging ponderously about, perpetually ingrained in the grout of these walls. The dim-lit room of sneeze-guards and picnic style lunch tables sits just near the entrance of The Young Women’s Leadership School in Jamaica, Queens, a mid-sized school situated amidst residential streets and car dealerships and big-box stores. A chant or jump rope rhyme of sorts breaks out as the security guard takes my ID, impervious to my small talk, and states my marching orders. It’s October and, like in any New York City public school, the walls are adorned with pumpkin cutouts and orange and black door hangings. I’m early, so I camp out on a bench just outside the classroom I’ll be working in for the next seven months. Soon the bell rings and a cadre of teenagers shuffles by, taking no notice of me, absorbed in their stories carried over from lunch. They spread out inside a classroom much too small for the number of us crammed within and I fall in behind.
It is the first day of our writing class. I have twenty-five weeks (one class, once a week) to get them to open up, be vulnerable and create art, which means I have to establish safety and trust quickly. So, in my introduction, I decide to do something I’ve never done before. Ever. Something that I think will grab their attention. I read aloud from my high school journal for the first time in my life.
I’ve been writing in journals since my grandmother first gave me one at six-years-old. I have every one I’ve ever written in locked in a trunk in my apartment. At this point, I’m nearly 30 and, given the way I use journaling as a psychic crutch, I’ve filled something like 40 journals over the span of my short life. I bring to class the journal I was writing in at 15 and flip to the same day 15 years ago.
October 24th, 2001
An existentialist is someone who believes in now. Living now. Why put off till tomorrow what you can do today. They believe in living a good life for the sake of a good life. Not so they can get into heaven or come back as something greater. Existentialists don’t even believe in an afterlife.
I don’t know what I believe in. I’m an existentialist in some ways. I believe in living a good life for the sake of living a good life. But I also believe in a higher power. However, I don’t think our lives are predetermined. If our destiny is already predetermined, then what’s the point of living?
It’s a brief entry, and I will confess it’s much less embarrassing than the pages that come before and after it. I tell the girls this and they demand that I read those too. It’s mostly a lot of desperate teenage anger, me lashing out at my parents, school, etc. However, I realized it’s important I share that with them as well, so that they don’t hold themselves to any kind of a standard. I say if that’s what is capturing your mind in the moment, let it capture. Trying to force yourself to write about something that doesn’t capture you is dishonest and won’t in turn capture your reader.
Part of the reason I journal, I tell them, is to know exactly how I feel about things. I write because I don’t really know about the world, about people, about myself. I tell my students, how are you supposed to get to know someone if you never talk to them? The principal applies to journaling and oneself.
And it turns out my plan worked. My willingness to be vulnerable has their attention and now they’re interested in what I have to say.
Except for one.
“I hate writing.”
I don’t know if most teachers would agree with this, but I find that the challenging students often become my favorites. It’s the students who make me rearrange the way I teach—who make me search for alternative modes of meaning, consciousness, and communication—that I often become closest with over the course of a class. When this girl called Awesome tells me she hates writing, my heart beats a little quicker.
“Awesome,” I say. “Can you please tell me why you hate writing?”
She rolls her eyes.
“For my benefit, please,” I say.
“Good, fine,” I nod. “Boring.”
She crosses her arms.
“Eh, you can do better than that,” I say.
“Yes, hmmm. Stupid. I’m starting to see it, but I need more.”
She frowns. All eyes are on us.
“Come on,” I say.
She throws her hands in the air.
“I’m just not any good at it!”
“Ah! You aren’t any good at it!”
“Yeah,” she says. “I suck.”
Heads swivel my way to gauge my reaction.
“Well, I can see why you’d hate it then. We all hate to do things we suck at.”
A few stifled giggles surround. I turn to the class.
“Boring. Stupid. Not any good at it.”
Awesome leans back, grinning.
“Who else feels this way?”
The girls glance from one to the other.
“Come on, you aren’t going to hurt my feelings.”
Hands creep into the air, heads tucked sheepishly into shoulders.
“Good,” I say. “That makes it more fun.”
“We’re going to start with something called a ‘free write’.”
Heads in hands, no response.
“Who can guess what a free write is?”
“You can write anything.”
I ask them what they think that means. They tell me a number of things from writing about your feelings to writing stories, poems, gossip, or even what you had for lunch.
“Absolutely,” I tell them. “Now, here’s the catch, you can’t stop writing either.”
The obligatory groans of teenagers surround. I tell them for five minutes they cannot stop writing and, if they don’t know what to write, they have to write that (“I don’t know what to write”) over and over again until they find something they want to write about.
“Nah, we can’t write what we want,” one says.
“Somebody’ll read it,” says another.
“Sure you can. In fact, there’s only one rule to journaling in my class and that’s that your journal is completely yours. No one is allowed to read it unless you give her permission.”
They don’t believe me.
“My journal is a sacred place for me. If someone ever looked in it, I would feel violated.”
“So no one can look in our journals?”
“Not even you?”
“Not even me,” I say. “And if someone does, well that person has to share an entry out of their own journal in front of the whole class.”
They look around at each other, unsure of whether they believe me.
“We can write anything?”
“What about cuss words?”
“When I was a kid I only knew two curse words and when I was angry, and unable to really articulate what shook me on the inside, I’d write those two curse words over and over in my journal until I felt better.”
They laugh. They’re starting to take me at my word.
Of course something is boring if it isn’t your idea or in your control, if you’re compelled to do something you don’t want to do. But if I give them the reins (with just the palimpsest of my structure visible), then it becomes something they want to do and not something they have to. And I don’t want to make anyone do anything they don’t want to do, especially at that age when they virtually have no control, but are starting to experience the world as young adults, when they are thinking and feeling the world being done to them without any say about it. Many of them come from situations in which they are powerless. I don’t want to tell them what to do. I want to help them find their power.
And of course I realize that I am a white lady in the authority figure position in a room full of mostly African- and Muslim-American young women and I know that I will never ever know the struggle they face every day.
But I can try.
I can hear them and I can provide them with a means to make their voices heard and to amplify them.
Girls are already writing and I haven’t yet started the timer.
“Ready?” I say.
To write is to explore, is that not what comes to mind, what comes to mind, what comes to mind, what comes to mind under blue clouds. Why why why why why can’t we simply be be be bebebebebe I don’t know what to write except that I do, that I do! Beaten pages ha! Human nature ha! this could go on and fear moving forward, fear moving too fast. Is this how we are bred. Is this how we assume we should be. Polka dots polka dots polka dots. sometimes I misspell sometimes my sentences are not coherent. Like these. Let’s forget about anyone who might read this, let’s keep going and perhaps it will launch.
Fast-forward a bit. We’ve covered a number of things, written some poetry and fiction, looked at assonance, narrative, metaphor and other implements of writing in our toolkits, all through the lens of voice, language, structure, and ideas. Today, we’re learning one of my favorites. And one I’m always positive none of them have ever heard.
“Repeat after me,” I say. “Anaphora.”
“Anaphora,” they call in unison.
“The beginning of a line that repeats.”
“The beginning of a line that repeats.”
“The beginning of a line that repeats!”
We repeat this chant more times than a reader is willing to sit through in an essay. In the months that follow, I’ll unexpectedly call out “anaphora” and they’ll respond appropriately, again and again.
We look at Kelly Norman Ellis’ “Raised by Women” and George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From” and talk about their use of anaphora. We talk about why a writer would use this device.
“Cause it gets stuck in your head.”
After some discussion, we set about writing our own poems, using anaphora to hook our audiences and make our words memorable.
“This is dumb,” Isabelle says across the room.
I kneel to the ground by her desk.
“What? The exercise?”
She points to her paper.
“I hate it. It’s stupid.”
“May I read it?”
She shrugs. I take the paper and what’s written is the story of a relationship of domestic violence in second person. There’s a woman and a man torn back and forth between one another and so much pain that the word “pain” literally falls on every other line. The empathy is there, but I see what Isabelle means. While violence like this does exist, she hasn’t shown us because she’s been so caught up in passing judgment on both characters, telling us what they’re meant to feel. The real thing she wants to write about lies deeper than this. However, while she thinks she’s missed the mark, really she’s just overthought everything.
“You’ve got some strong moments here.”
“I hate it.”
She pushes the paper up her desk.
“What are you really upset about? What is really grabbing you right now that you can’t shake?”
She opens her mouth.
“Don’t tell me. Show me here,” I point to the paper.
She nods, sets to work and is immersed for the rest of class. I go about helping other students, occasionally looking up to see Isabelle erasing and scribbling with her head down and, just before the bell rings, she sits up, waves me over and hands me her notebook.
But do you remember it?
How many black women can you name that’s been a victim
of the system?
arrested for not using her turn signal
three days later she was found dead in her jail cell
do you remember her?
a black transgender woman
took the wrong turn into NSA property
and was killed by police officers
in the back of the police cruiser
she was shot by officers
a young woman
mother of three
killed by the police
say her name
a possible victim
because you never know when it’s going to be your turn.
Like a lot of young people at that age, I too was caught up with explaining things, finding out why something was so, rather than translating the thing as I experienced it and letting the meaning fall of its own volition. It took a long time for me to realize that art only has to expose something, show the feeling, it doesn’t have to make sense of everything, because sometimes, when we make bare the true nature of something, the explanation becomes self-evident.
“What do you think?” I ask.
She nods. Smiles.
In young people, especially young women, I see a lot of them struggle not with empathy towards others, but empathy towards the self. The drive is there to want to know what someone else feels, but they have to trust that their own feelings are legitimate, to trust the feeling that captures them and to try and convey that on paper.
I’m not any good at it.
It’s poetry station day. We’re attempting four different kinds of poetry, but at our individual paces. There are four stations set up around the room and the girls can come and go to each one as they please. We’re exploring Found Art (Erasure & Cut-Ups), Spoken Word, Narrative, and Concrete Poems. Many of these poems are axiomatic, but a concrete poem, I explain in so many words, is a visual poem where the arrangement of words is as equally important as the word choice. Many students have gravitated to the concrete poems and are engrossed in their collaborative visual art and linguistic creations.
But one student isn’t writing anything. She’s talking to her neighbors, distracting them while they work, playing with her hair and nails, generally being disruptive.
“Chavela,” I say.
I’ve stepped in it.
“Excuse me,” I say. “Awesome.”
I happen to think the name Chavela is much nicer, but we’ve grown close because I’ve continued to call her “Awesome” in front of the class, so I’ve got to respect that. I kneel down next to her and talk so the rest of the class can’t hear.
“Chavela, what’s going on?”
She looks askance.
“I can’t draw.”
“Alright, well you don’t have to make it anything fancy.”
“Fine, I’ll draw a box.”
She draws a box on the paper, then sits back with a half-smile and arms crossed, her sarcastic effort at getting me to admit defeat in the face of her writing abilities.
“Great. So what does the box represent to you?”
She rolls her eyes.
“How you’re boxing me in with this poem!”
She looks at me like I’m nuts.
“What else boxes you in?”
“I don’t know,” she starts, throws her hands up. “Society?”
“Oh wow, well I’d like to hear about that. How does society box you in?”
“Because I’m a girl. And brown.”
“So how would you write those things in the box?”
“It’s not a box, it’s a cage.”
“With bars, see?”
She’s drawn a crude cage with bars running its width.
“And what else-”
But she’s waving a hand in my face. I stand there momentarily, and then slip away to help someone else, leaving Awesome to do her thing.
I write, like I said before, to know myself, to find my voice and to find out what is alive in me. But another part of me writes because I want to shed that limited voice that makes me up, I want to crack open that thing I think is my personality, change it up, shape it differently, unearth, blow it up, make it better in order to be a part of something that is much larger than the self.
I let some time pass, then make my way back to Awesome. Her mouth’s twisted up, brows furrowed. I glance at what she’s written.
“Wow,” I say.
She looks up.
“This is lovely.”
She hides her grin.
“It’s not finished.”
“You’ll finish it.”
I leave her to it. Class ends and the girls put away their journals. I look for Awesome, but she’s a ghost by the time the bell rings. So I leave school, knowing I’ll see her the next week.
And then I’m in my car, looking down at my phone, flipping through emails, transitioning from my teacher life back into my admin life, when suddenly the back door opens and a person hops in and for a brief moment I clutch my phone, prepared to use it as a weapon to fight off this intruder.
“You really think it’s good?” she asks.
“Oh my god, Chavela!” I yell. “You scared me to death.”
She ignores me.
“Yes,” I say. “Of course it’s good. It’s the best thing I’ve seen you write.”
She stares at me.
“Don’t believe me? I even wrote it down in my journal.”
I hold up my journal and show her the small note I made during class.
“Wow,” she says. “I’m famous.”
Chavela aka “Awesome,” 3/9/16
barred into this terrible life
where your intelligence is based off one test
where your skin color affects your every move
one mistake or flaw defines you
where “the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.”
where rape occurs more and more daily
where way too many teens want to kill themselves
where the world is filled with too much hate
girls are barred into society’s standards of being “pretty”
people are ashamed to show who they are
and you simply can’t get away.
Only when she recognized the bars did they start to come down on the inside. Some small spark of vulnerability shone through and allowed her to peel back her teenage veneer and reveal how she really felt, even to herself. For the first time (at least in my class), Chavela displayed a willingness to look at herself from another angle. She may not have fallen in love with writing, but being open to vulnerability as a means for growth will be both extremely difficult to continue pursuing and imperative that she does.
It’s not about loving writing or loving school. It’s about seeing the world as if it was otherwise and that includes ourselves. And when they happen to fall in love with writing anyway, well that’s just a pat on the back for me.
In the end, I didn’t have to explain anything to them. I only had to be the vessel that helped them to that point of discovery. The evidence was in front of them. Twenty-five weeks of breaking apart our ideas, challenging voices and who we believe ourselves to be, who we believe the world to be. What we think writing to be. They didn’t need me to point that out. They already knew it. They just needed a little help realizing it and that’s what art and teachers do alike.
A few months later, we’ve reached the end of our residency, culminating at an event in which we’ve invited the 6th-graders to attend a celebration in the gym. Some of the 9th-graders, including Chavela, perform their poems in front of the group and guide the younger students in a lesson on anaphora and community poem-making. At the end of the event, I shout across the room.
“Awesome,” I yell. The girls in our class giggle at my commitment to the moniker she’s given herself. “Do you hate writing?”
The room grows quiet. The classroom teachers and principals who’ve been invited to this celebration look at me along with all of my students and potential students like I’ve got something on my face. I’ve put myself on the spot. Chavela smiles.
“Of course not. When did I ever say that?”
Photo (top) from Inside Schools
M.K. Rainey received her MFA in fiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She currently teaches writing to the youth of America though Community-Word Project, Wingspan Arts, and The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cider Press Review, Litro Online, Equinox, KGB Lit Journal, The Grief Diaries, and more. She co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series and lives in Harlem with her dog. Sometimes she writes things the dog likes.