Ever have one of those college or high school classes that was just the right mixture of people? It didn’t necessarily have to be the people you liked; you might have even despised a few of them. But something about the group dynamic made the class a cut above the rest. You were actually excited to get in there. It made you look forward to your day a little. I can count one hand which classes those were for me and the first was Ms. Hardin’s senior AP English class.
Sometimes, I think it was 9/11 that drove that class together. Otherwise, it was just another English lit class, like any other. But 9/11 forced all the silliness out of us. Quite literally. We had the television turned on in time to watch the second plane fly into the towers. And when the newscaster announced that “all flights are being diverted to Canada,” the entire class laughed out loud, which Ms. Hardin didn’t take too kindly; she angrily shut off the television and then said in near tears, “You all don’t understand what a big deal this is. There are people falling thousands of feet from the top of that building. This is world-changing, and you’re just laughing.”
In hindsight, we were all still teenagers. Laughter was how we dealt with something we couldn’t begin to understand. Because Ms. Hardin was right – we didn’t understand at all what was happening. I remember the whole class sitting there in awkward silence until Ms. Hardin turned the television back on. No one talked the rest of the period.
But then, after that, when we began to talk about literature again, it seemed more important somehow. Not that we suddenly started caring who died in MacBeth, but we understood that literature wasn’t just something dead people wrote down that we were forced to learn because that’s what you do in school. It was suddenly more than that. The best of it was a catalog of things we could relate to, a way of connecting us to people miles and years apart whose struggles, no matter how much more exaggerated than our own, were still a doorway or a window into ourselves.
At the beginning of class each day, Ms. Hardin gave us fifteen minutes of “free-writing.” The concept was simple. A different person was assigned each day to read something to the class. It could be a famous poem, a few sentences of a short story – absolutely anything. Then, the class would have ten minutes to respond in writing. Of course, if you wanted, you could completely ignore the topic of the day. The topic was just meant to be a way to get the creative juices flowing. Then, finally, if you wanted, you could share what you had written with the class. Or with Ms. Hardin. Or with no one. Thus, it was an invitation to be deeply personal.
I should probably take pause here to say that I went into my senior year of high school a near complete recluse. I’m not joking. Junior year, I was that kid who sat at the lunch table and pretended to read a book so that no one would talk to me. I would place my head down and try to sleep while everyone else ate. I hated being there.
But for a lack of better phrasing, I guess I started “blossoming” my senior year, and it began with free-writing, where I was given my own, personal microphone to say anything I wanted to a class full of my fellow seniors – all of whom were forced to listen to me, and when I realized I was capable of holding their attention, it changed me deeply. I wasn’t just a recluse anymore. I was a recluse who could be a leader with words.
But it started with humor, or sarcasm, rather. One day, one of the students leading free-writing brought a poem to class about hugging and embracing a best friend. It was like she’d picked up something from a Hallmark card and wanted to share it thinking we’d all get the same warm fuzzies she had. I don’t remember my response verbatim, but it went something like: “Hugs are cheesy, / Hugs are gay. / I don’t like hugs, / Anyway.” It was my rebellious “screw off” to all warm, fuzzy feelings and anything positive, but it was presented in a lighthearted way. It prompted a tall, red-headed jokester named Jared New – who ran with the popular crowd, though I’m not so sure he was “popular” – to run over and hug me just to add to the sarcastic moment. But more than that, it breathed new life into me. I could make people laugh and listen.
So, I decided to be more brave. In one of my first free-writing exercises, I confessed my “love” to the most popular girl in our senior class – a cheerleader named Lauren Mayes. In reality, I had no interest in the girl whatsoever. The whole thing had been a joke I had conjured up with Myronda, a girl who had either sat in front of or behind me in every class I think I ever had in high school. I don’t remember what was funny about it, in hindsight. I think Myronda had sold it to me as though it would be fun to embarrass Lauren. After all, if the guy who regarded himself as the school’s biggest loser confessed his love to the school’s most popular girl in an open forum where she’d be all but forced to respond to me in a polite way…. well, it was win-win for me. I had nowhere to go but up, and she had nowhere to go but down.
But the plan sort of backfired. Several girls in the class responded acknowledging that they would be happy to go on a date with me, including Lauren, and that completely caught me off-guard. One of those girls was the same girl who had chased me on the playground in kindergarten and given me Lego’s, and in her response, she mentioned those kindergarten days fondly. Even as I walked out of class that day, Ms. Hardin smiled at me and just said, “Smooth.” Thinking on it all now, I’m pretty sure Myronda knew what kind of responses I’d get, and I half-wonder if the whole thing was a ploy she’d set me up to just so I’d realize I wasn’t the biggest loser I thought I was.
Then again, I never did take any of those girls up on their offers.
A few months later, Myronda and I were at it again. This time, our goal was to bring the class into our depressing depths and force empathy on them. Myronda helped me write what we called the “Nowhere Man,” a spin-off from the famous Beatles song but in prose form. I actually wrote it up on my poetry blog a few years ago, though it’s a slightly different version from the original. The idea was to paint a portrait of a loser, force the audience to ask why people think that person is a loser when maybe God just “made him unique.” Then, the last few lines state something like, “Maybe all that time, the Nowhere Man… was you.”
Looking back, I’m not sure what I expected, how I thought the class would respond. I just knew it was an opportunity for Myronda and I to create a little empathy for the little guy, since at times we had both felt like the little guy. But more than that, we knew that everybody in the room had felt like the little guy before, even though most of them probably fell into the “popular” crowd.
That day, over nine people in the class wrote suicidal responses to my free-writing. The next morning, Ms. Hardin was forced to send me to the school psychologist who didn’t really think anything was wrong, but before she sent me there, she had me and Myronda out in the hallway to say something I’ll never forget: “You two have to be more careful or you’re going to end up like Sylvia Plath. You’ve tapped into something that’s too deep, too beyond your years. You’re not ready for it. Most people never are, and you need to be careful. You’ve realized that you can manipulate people with words, and that’s a very dangerous quality to have.”
I loved it. I loved being told that. It made me feel powerful, and even though I knew that wasn’t the reaction I should’ve had, I took real pleasure in knowing just how smart I was, even though I was only really a B+ student.
There were a lot of other things that went on that semester in Ms. Hardin’s class. Ms. Hardin had to pick a student to psychoanalyze for her Master’s program, and somehow I got chosen to be that student. Myronda and I spent a lot of time staring out the window at a tree we couldn’t decide was dying or growing up, but it seemed to be suffering either way. We weren’t afraid of facing reality for the first time, but we also didn’t realize how big reality was.
One of the very last days of the semester, just before graduation, I made a little concession and “revised” my “hugs are cheesy” poem. I confessed to the class that “sometimes, on a rare occasion, I do in fact very much like hugs.” It was intended to be funny and lighthearted, and it was my way of ending the semester, but Jared New – the same kid who’d hugged me as joke months earlier – wrote in his response that he felt like he’d seen me come out of my shell that year. And as much as I was annoyed at him at the time for saying that, he was right. But you’ve got to be careful when you come out of your shell. There’s a lot of risk and vulnerability that comes with that.
It doesn’t take much for us to change as people. So often, we think of change as something that happens as a major, cathartic event. But the truth is, change is actually this gradual, everyday thing, and sometimes, something as simple as a literature class and a little freedom to write about how you actually feel can deeply impact you and everyone around you. The real question is, does it impact you for better or for worse? I’m still working on the answer to that.