The Usual Magic
I am writing this while standing up. It’s 9:20 pm and I am at a computer in a lectern in Room 127A at the community college where I teach a freshman comp class two nights a week. I am not lecturing—the part where I talk is done for tonight. But the classroom is buzzing with voices.
It’s a writer’s workshop. Six tables of adult students are reading drafts of their personal narratives to one another in our first formal workshop. And, as usual, the magic happens.
A guy with a gold tooth and bad lungs from the Gulf War talks to a round-cheeked Latina, who I actually taught when she was an ESL student in 9th grade (10 years ago?). She’s just shared a piece about one of her younger siblings, a twin who is severely disabled.
An Ethiopian man has written about his older brother, an educator and activist who never came home to dinner one night—the family found out on TV that he’d been murdered by the government. A less world-weary young man at the table, also Ethiopian, wrote about his first—or maybe his last—cigarette.
Earlier this class, we discussed Virginia Wolff’s “Death of a Moth,” produced when she was distracted one afternoon at her writing desk by a moth trapped between the window panes. The essay turns into a meditation about the passage from life to death that every living creature makes. One of the class’s more mature students, a substance abuse counselor with scarred knuckles, brought the wisdom of his years to our discussion.
So did another older student, a middle-aged Chinese woman with an accent so thick that I have to listen through it like falling water to make out the words. Last class she told me I was bossy and asked if I’d been in the military, because I forced her to tell me where the breaks should fall in the page-length paragraph she’d handed in.
My back is getting sore, and my feet are tired. The boys will be asleep by the time I get home. But as I listen to these people tell their stories, I begin to feel something else. Maybe it’s that no one’s calculating their grade on a graphing calculator; or that I’m not trying to videotape student achievement.
Whatever it is, I’ve faded away, and all there is in the room are the words, bright beads of light buzzing around our heads like dying moths. We’re connected tonight, but by what? The class ends and everyone files out the door. I walk to my car in the cold night air, too spent to wonder.