An apple for a teacher is sweet. An apple with a handwritten adjective describing the teacher is priceless. Yesterday was a Macintosh day. One of my sophomores volunteered “Apple” as the freewrite go-word. The adolescents scribbled for a few moments and shared much longer, about colors and phones and foods. The joy of a freewrite is its freedom: it removes the barriers – grammar, spelling, punctuation, penmanship – between brain and paper. Thoughts spout in unexpected directions.
My student Young Beauty’s blog is made up entirely of freewrites. She can never predict where unhindered stream of consciousness writing will lead her. Sometimes to emotions, sometimes to silliness, sometimes to epiphany. Young Beauty leaves in all errors intentionally to preserve the integrity of the freewrite. If anything, you might say the mistakes were what freed her to achieve a greater goal of self-discovery.
When I write, it’s like a tamed freewrite. I make no significant alterations before publishing, preserving the integrity of the free flow of thought. I rid my physical and mental worlds of distractions before diving in to explore the murky sentiments bubbling up beneath the surface all week long. I don’t plan what I’ll write. I start with the first thing that pops into my head. To emphasize the importance of transitions, I’ve admitted to my students that, without them, my writing would appear to be a collection of randomly strung-together ideas.
In fact, last March, it was a freewrite about the hundred-year-old oak that fell in my backyard that inspired my own first writing epiphany since my extended hiatus from practicing the craft. I empathized with this great tree, branches stacked on the curb waiting for the garbage man, purposeless, rotted at the base. In this tree I saw my own loss mirrored. Youth. Optimism. Future. Purpose. All surrendered in the fall, both of us powerless to do anything about it.
That night I concluded that I wasn’t dead yet, that I still had the ability to put my branches to good use and make my existence count for something. I recalled my nine-year-old predictions about my life in twenty years and replaced them with a new twenty-year dream. I really grieved the loss of that tree. Granted, it was unwarranted, but it’s true, nevertheless. I determined then to find a fate better than that of the great oak.
This weekend, I found myself standing inside the trunk of a similar grand old tree a few hours from here. Charming and I had escaped the city to spend our sixties-and-sunny Saturday in a nature park. We walked, read posts, scanned the scenery for wildlife, and wandered out across fallen trees. Near the park’s entrance, we encountered this enormous, sprawling trunk. In the dead of winter, no leaves could prove whether it was alive or dead. It stood tall, despite the gaping hole at its base which could have easily housed a slender giant.
I could, perhaps, identify better with this tree than my own. As I inched my way inside, sliding my fingers across the bark, I was amazed that it was still standing. When I divorced, I felt a similar gaping hole. A year ago, I was just beginning to come back to life. I wasn’t standing tall, but I wasn’t on my knees anymore either. My tamed freewrite led me to determination and action that night.
After my apple freewrite students vacated their desks yesterday, our English faculty replaced them for a department meeting. Each teacher received an apple ornament and drew a random colleague’s name from a jar. I asked them to use a sharpie to write an adjective on the apple that described their person. Finally, they gave their apple adjectives to their teachers. There was laughter and hugging.
My former co-teacher had drawn my name. She smiled slyly as she offered me her apple, on which was penned, “Wildly Optimistic”. Since I was leading the meeting, I knew I had to table the significance of this particular adjective compliment until later. After a quick hug and thank you that put my emotions back in check, we were able to finish without incident and the desks were vacant once again.
I’ve been in high school for fourteen years. As a student, I’d had peers and teachers describe me with adjectives in various exercises. As a teacher, I’ve had students and peers describe me. I’m used to ones like creative, energetic, and perfectionist. I’ve described myself with adjectives, always careful to pair any compliments with related criticisms, an act that unwittingly keeps me humble. No one, myself included, has ever attributed “optimistic” to me.
When did that happen?
I sat at my desk and considered when I was most clearly optimistic. I glanced over my left shoulder to the bins containing costumes for Julius Caesar. Back in Nashville in my early teaching days, my sophomores would act the whole play out in class on a make-shift stage. It was tiring but worth it. The kids brought the archaic language to life, different in every class every year. There was probably laughter and hugging then, too.
It was the year some members of the band Faith in Shadows sat in my desks. I learned something new every day. They taught me as much I as I did them. Youth. Optimism. Future. Purpose. I had them. I was just starting out. It never occurred to me that someday, not so far off, I’d be a tree with a gaping hole, maybe even lose all four.
This year, my students are like those ones. I’m always learning. In an apple freewrite, one student used the term, Skrt. A clueless Ms. Palma requested a little schooling. The kids explained that it’s like the sound the tires make when a car changes directions quickly, and you use it to change the topic… or at least that’s what I gleaned from their excited teachable moment talking over one another.
After bringing the lesson back to English by asking the students to recognize the literary device in Skrt (onomatopoeia), I made a silly show of using the word to shift from the warm-up to the lesson; there was laughter in the transition, but the point was made.
For the past fifty weeks of my life, I have this written record that catalogues every Skrt in my life’s narrative. Like Young Beauty’s freewriting blog, my tamed weekly freewrites mark the changes and shifts I’ve endured and enjoyed in my recent history. Each little epiphany adds up.
That’s why this apple with a handwritten adjective describing me is priceless. My colleague thinks that I am wildly optimistic. That happened over the past fifty weeks. My writing nights are like weekly progress reports, generated and processed only when everything else is on pause and the barriers are lifted.
I’ve made my goodbyes to Youth, but I welcome back Optimism. There’s still plenty of time to chase down Future and Purpose.