Monday, October 5, 2015

One in a Thousand

She sits in the front row, always quiet, if not a bit aloof. She doesn't seem to trust me, or is impatient with the clunky red tape of a university writing class. Her eyes show a sharp discernment, but also a reluctance to fully reveal the extent of her insights.

There are others who want to dance in the light of class attention. They joust with me, have already begun to call me "Toso," even though we are only in the third week of the semester. They find my goofy socks and perennial footwear of sandals a bit over the top.

She rolls with it all, on her way to somewhere else. This is just a required stop along the way. She doesn't shine, has no need to. The extroverts can run the class as far as she is concerned.

But then her paper comes across my desk. The cover is blown. She can no longer remain in hiding, at least to me. She has taken a ho-hum assignment and transformed it into poetry. She went to the food court at the student union to observe and report.

The food court at the UA is an exercise in corporate franchise and screen bombardment. Students are served up fare for the body and mind that keep them on the path of good corporate citizens. The place does not exactly make people think, and is the counterpoint to my experience and the Memorial Union in Madison, Wisconsin. That was a hotbed of diversity, intense conversations, and student creativity.

Another story.

So, she goes to the UA food court to observe. I expect a litany of cliches about Chik-Fil-A and Burger King.

What I find is "High school, for me, was a metal grate of conformity and judgments. Here I sit left alone, anonymous, my mind at peace, surrounded by a chaos of hurry."


I have seen this before. A student sits in class and does little to distinguish himself or herself and then begins to write. The secret is out. There is a voice there, a capacity to take words and shape anything into a living, breathing thing of beauty. They are magicians in that sense. They can change a moment from dull, flat, and tiresome into something worthy of awe, of wonder.

For me, as a teacher, this is a sip from the Holy Grail. It is rare, but it happens. A few students who have the gift have gone on to become writers or teachers or community organizers. I see them occasionally around Tucson. They are rubies in a field of gray, unbidden gifts that I carry close for the hard times, for inspiration.

She goes on to the smells of coconut, mozzarella melting, and orange chicken surrounded by a "beige conformity and drabness in spite of the blaring neon signs saying 'buy me.'"

The assignment asked students to reflect on the place they observed, to bring themselves into the portrayal.

She writes : "Everyone is in motion. I am too, but drifting for the first time in the direction my life wants to take. I too am moving, but now out of the glare of high school criticism and labeling -- 'loner,' 'freak,' 'weirdo,' -- and in an anonymity I find liberating."

Damn. Couldn't have said it better myself.

But she doesn't let up.

"While others may find the paradoxical anonymity and solitude of the food court unpleasant, I am content to let my thoughts take me where they will, to see where they will go, what person they will reveal in this new found freedom."

Holy shit.

"I can't know what others see or feel here, what are the circumstances of their lives. Here I can be the girl that I am becoming without anyone jumping all over me. I can be the girl who dropped her glasses, the girl tripping over herself, the girl, who, for whatever reason, is sitting in the corner, closing her eyes to better see what it is she wants to see, writing for herself. I can be the girl who is a surprise, a stranger, but yet familiar, an old friend who I am just beginning to know."

So clerks take their orders and shout out numbers and engage in mind numbing repetitions of tasks while one young woman who happens to write sits in a corner and finds a poet she always knew, a girl who wanted a chance to speak her vision.

She unleashed a vision so strong it transformed the place to a work of art. She has the gift to turn a pedantic exercise into a dance, a synergy that adds up to far more than the sum of its parts. In the world of multiple intelligences, her strengths lie in what might be called the intrapersonal and the linguistic. Another framework, the Myers-Briggs inventory, might place her in the category of introvert as well. As such, she is in the minority in a world dominated by extroverts, an educational system that views knowledge as primarily a social construction, an interpersonal exchange, of persuasion and argument, of fitting in to the system. Writing curricula stress the need to identify existing forms of social communication and to then master them, all while conforming, rather than questioning.

D. will have to navigate a university path that is not much built to draw on her strengths. She will likely have a hard time contorting to fit in the narrow mold of a successful university career. Fitting in will not come easy. She will not get much opportunity for self-exploratory reflection, or be asked what it is she thinks about something. Most of her life here will be about short term content, parroting what her teachers tell her, paying homage to the received wisdom of experts.

"The one thing you can't be here," she writes, "is the girl who didn't talk because she either had nothing to say or no words to say what she was really feeling."

With that she began to disappear into the swirling chaos of a university food court only to re-emerge between the notes of constant movement, anonymity, and chaos.

She is an anomaly, an incongruity, a human spark in a research assembly line. I wish her well and will tell her to hang on. She's in for a hell of a ride.

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