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To Teach is to Learn


An interesting thing happened at my journaling class today. For all that I like to think of myself as a giving, committed teacher, sometimes my attitude does not match my good intentions. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I get lazy.



I was not in the mood to teach. The weather was glorious outside so I knew attendance would be low, and frankly, I was not much in the mood to work. I hadn’t prepared any specific exercises for the class, so I’d have to wing it. I hate that. It’s no fun to teach when you’re off your game. Two regulars came in and offered to take the meditation class if no one else showed up for journaling, so I sat in the front lobby watching the door, hoping no one else would arrive so I could cut out and head for the beach with my daughter . A few moments later, in walks this woman with a journal in hand. I muttered, “Shit” under my breath. Guess there was no getting out of teaching today.



I set up the tables and a few chairs and pulled out my journaling class notes. I made myself a cup of tea and all but dragged myself into the room. I sincerely love to teach writing, but on this particular afternoon, I felt as if I was giving up precious time with little hope of it being worth the effort considering the small turnout. I forced a smile and glanced at my notes thinking it didn’t really matter what I focused on today. Everyone there was a beginner and I just had to go through the motion of teaching journaling and get it over with.



The students gathered and exchanged some small talk about the journaling they had done since last we met and I gave them a simple exercise – to write a letter to a part of their body. I’ve done this in journaling classes before and some fun things can bubble to the surface. Once, a woman wrote a letter to the roll of fat around her mid-section, telling her belly that it was time they parted acquaintance for good because, with a friend like that who needed enemies. It was a silly, but fun essay, and one that made the entire class chuckle. Remembering that, I thought a body letter would be a nice place to start warming up this group’s writing on such a slow, lazy day.




For 15 minutes everyone scratched on their pads, deep in concentration. I wrote a little something about my feet thinking that with so few writers in the room, I might need to share something to keep the conversation lively. (I usually try to keep my writing classes focused on the student’s work alone so it doesn’t become the “Ginny’s show”.) When everyone’s writing wound down, I asked if anyone wanted to share what they had worked on so we could discuss connections and see if the writing led you anything resembling a personal discovery.




One woman had written about her thighs. She shared a cute and thoughtful essay about how, despite workouts and dieting, her thighs had an agenda of their own and they kept spreading, taking on the look of cottage cheese the older she got. But then her passage shifted and she started talking about how she felt badly about having imperfect thighs, and before you knew it, the piece had changed dramatically, turning into a poignant reflection on how society and the media made her constantly feel inadequate. I couldn’t have asked for a better example of how journaling can lead us to explore our inner world and personal issues as the power of privacy and space for self-honesty takes effect, so I was delighted.




I asked if anyone else wanted to share what they had written and that woman, the one who was responsible for my having to teach today, offered to read a bit of what she had put on paper. I leaned on my elbow and urged her to read, expecting something light or silly sine that seemed to be the tone of the day.



She had written about her hair. What no one in the room realized is that the lovely hair we assumed was hers was actually a wig. The woman has breast cancer and is in treatment and she has lost most of her real hair. So, she began sharing this conversation she had written between her and her hair, talking about how she misses her hair, but had come to accept it would soon all be gone. Meanwhile, clumps of it is apparently still hanging on and she wonders why, wonders if it is her hair clinging to her, or she is clinging to her hair. She wrote about how petty it seems to worry about hair when your life is at stake, and yet, the transition felt symbolic, as if not just her head was exposed now, but her identity, leaving her naked and vulnerable and open to more hurt than she feels she can bare.




Her words were honest and pure and everyone in the room was touched. Especially me. I thanked her for sharing. She had tears in her eyes when she said, “No, thank you for having this class. You have no idea how badly I need this. Some days I don’t know how I’ll cope, but I believe journaling will help. The minute I read in Natural Awakenings that you were offering this class, I knew it was exactly what I needed.”




I sat there feeling deep chagrin, thinking how close I came to canceling the class and how I wanted to urge the woman to take meditation instead. This shy woman would never have said anything, and I’d be at the beach, glad I didn’t waste my time teaching writing that afternoon when the weather was so lovely. Meanwhile, that woman would have gone home feeling as badly as she felt when she dared cross the threshold. She had come to me for help dealing with her inner quandary and I almost turned her away because I was not in the mood. I never imagined my choice to teach or not would really impact someone else. But it did.  




It struck me that we all go through life saying and doing things that leave small or large impressions on others, and we really have no clue of the wake we leave behind us. As such, our intentions are important, just as our commitment to do what we set out to do. Our work shouldn’t have parameters depending upon” how many we serve” or “how much we make” to validate our efforts.




I thought I needed to lighten the mood of the room, so I chose another exercise that is often fun for students. “If you bed would talk, what would it say about you? Write.”



Cute and creative work came out of everyone, commentary about wrestles nights, active bed springs, and bodies that keep growing a bit heavier or lumpy over the years.

But my new student had more to reveal. She wrote in the bed’s voice about how it (the bed) missed being the place where she formerly visited for steamy nights of romance and passion and easy nights watching TV with the family. Now the bed said she crawled into the covers to sob or lay sick and depressed, and that she spent way too much time there, exhausted, spent and hopeless. The bed was looking forward to the day when his mistress could get through an entire afternoon without visiting and dreamed that someday, it would again become a place where love and life was celebrated rather than sickness and sadness.




It was powerful stuff. The entire room fell silent. I sat there thinking how lucky I was to be a teacher today. I was witness to a student finding her voice and exercising it, and that discovery had nothing to do with the number of students in the room or my assignments being preplanned, or anything else that I normally associate with a “successful” class.    




Everyone has a story to tell. When you teach journaling, it is like mining those stories from deep in the gut and helping people learn how to unleash the essence of those stories on paper so our choices and experiences don’t fester and make painful grooves on the  heart and mind that debilitate us or keep us from feeling whole. Whether the process affects a roomful of people or only one individual doesn’t make a difference. What counts is sharing the tools of reflection and self-discovery with others. That is I put a journaling class on the schedule and chose to give up my Sunday afternoons.



Today, I was reminded of why I made that decision. My work is important, but only if I treat it as such and only when I come to the table committed and open to possibilities, without judgment or attitude or huge expectations of the results I’ll get for my efforts.  




A simple lesson taught.


A much more important lesson learned.              

About Ginny East Shaddock

Director of Heartwood Retreat Center, Ginny is also a writer. This is her personal blog with essay form writing about life and reflection. My entries are often lengthy and random, because I'm not here to promote or sell anything. I'm not expecting followers - just find this format a good place to think with the pen.

One response »

  1. Welcome back! Great blog! I look forward to reading many more about your ever interesting life. I wonder if people who attend my cooking class are like your students….hmmmmmm…

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