Spectacles of the Mind

Manda Frederick

Ellie sits across from me at my metal yellow desk. Tiredness cuts away from her tear ducts in two bruise-colored wedges. Lately, in lieu of her usual intellectual-meets-bohemian-coordinated outfits, she’s been wearing sweats to class. Her eyes are as red as the flush of her cheeks, and the greens of her irises are electric against her pinked whites. You look tired, I say. She doesn’t respond, but her body tenses into itself.

Ellie is quiet. She glances at my two officemates—fellow graduate students. This room isn’t big enough for three desks and four people, and we’re practically touching elbows. She asked to meet me in my office after class to talk about this week’s assignment, the personal essay. I didn’t think this was unusual; several of my students were anxious about this particular assignment and had met with me. Earlier this week, I had condemned conventional composition writing devices and thesis statements to my students, quoting some source on how such methods only limited their creative possibilities and closed their minds. I had explained that the purpose of an essay is to think through an issue. I offered them a detailed prompt with inspiring quotes (read: inexperienced graduate student trying to look like a knowledgeable writing teacher):

The “essay is the closest thing we have, on paper, to a record
of the individual mind at work and play…the spectacle of a single consciousness making
sense of part of the chaos.”

Scott Russell Sanders

The “genuine essayist…is the writer who thinks his way though the
and so comes out where perhaps he did not wish to.”

Alfred Kazin

The essay “is the mind in the marvels and miseries of its makings.”

William H. Gass

When I gave my students the personal essay assignment and told them to abandon thesis statements, I also urged them to pick a personal experience they hadn’t quite “figured out yet.” This ruled out already-told stories and already-journaled experiences. The other writing assignments, I explained, are product-driven: the department is trying to get you to demonstrate that you’ve learned something taught to you. The personal essay, I reminded my students, is process-based: we’re trying to get you to learn something from or about yourself. And though there was no way to enforce such a demand, some of the students embraced the encouragement and struggled through their own unexamined experiences. Ellie is one of these students.

A perfectionist, Ellie is hard on herself. She’s the kind of student I must sometimes pull aside and tell to take it easy on an assignment, that her idea of a “C”-grade effort is equivalent to most people's idea of an “A” effort; often, she’ll either turn in her idea of an “A” effort assignment or not turn anything in at all. So, now, I suspect she is meeting with me to ask for an extension.

Ellie seems to have forgotten my office mates and, now, is only thinking. She absent-mindedly taps her index finger a few times on my desk, like she’s striking a piano key—she does this sometimes, in class, before she offers something to the discussion that she’s not confident about saying. Recognizing her hesitation, I turn toward her fully, adjusting so that I’m seated Indian-style in my seat (read: writing teacher trying to look more like an approachable graduate student). And in my most casual, cheerful tone, I give her the go ahead with a “So what’s up?”

Ellie tells me that she's interested in the personal essay as a way to work through an experience. She says wants to write about “what happened” when she was eleven. She thinks she’s ready. But she’s having a really hard time “figuring it out.”

I tell her it, whatever it is, sounds like a good candidate for a personal essay.

“Only a couple people aside from my parents know about it,” she says. “I never talk about it, or think about it either, really.”

“So what happened?” I ask.

“My parents were going through a divorce.”

Oh, is that it? I think.

She felt alone. She fell in love with an equally lonely boy, also eleven.

“Were his parents getting a divorce, too?” I ask.

“No,” she says. “He was dying of cancer.”

That’s sad, I think. “That’s sad,” I say. Did he die? I wonder. “So you want to write about his cancer?” I ask.

“Not exactly,” she says. “See, he used to keep a needle, you know, the kind that you get shots with, in the spine of a book. He said if anything ever got too hard, he’d put the needle into his arm and let air into his vein and he’d die.”

“Does that really work?” I say without thinking.

Ellie nods. “It sends air to your heart and you die,” she confirms. She didn’t think it would work either. Until he did it. And he died.

Where do kids learn this stuff? I think. “So that’s 'what happened' when you were eleven?” I ask. “That’s what you want to write about?”

“Not exactly,” she says. “That’s what made me do it.

Ellie stops talking. There is a long, quiet minute between us. I want to ask her a nudging question, but decide to wait to see what she needs from me because I'm not entirely sure. As a teacher of writing, I'm a novice. This is my first quarter teaching and I've struggled with learning the boundaries between “teacher” and “human being” in the classroom; I've struggled in developing my curriculum so that it meets the department requirements and my own goals as a teacher and writer. When establishing your first writing curriculum, the department for which you work will probably encourage you to establish a steadfast list of course objectives: broad goals that the students will achieve by the end of the term. You must ask yourself: what can't the students do now that they should be able to do at the end of the quarter, and how will you achieve this? But it's hard to know what the students can't do. It's presumptuous to assume what the students can't do. So I found myself projecting on my students my own self-judgment of what I couldn't do when I was their age: I had a hard time thinking about the world and making sense of my experiences. I wasn't sure how this could relate to composition. But I knew this: I loved writing. I wanted them to love writing. So when I discovered that the department for which I work required three major assignments—the expository paper, the argument paper, and the personal essay—I knew, instantly, that I would use the personal essay to teach my students something important: to use writing to think about the world and make sense of their experiences. This is what Ellie is trying to do.

Ellie starts tapping her fingers on my desk, again. I know this is a comforting cadence for her—the repetitious soothing we all must have learned from the heart. Her eyes are so green, now, and I'm sure she's going to cry.

Finally, she asks: "Have you ever had your stomach pumped?"

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