I had an amazing conversation with a former student the last few weeks of school. She be-bopped into my office, asking if I would read her latest English assignment and give her some feedback. She’s been doing this all year, and I have to confess, I love it! Okay, I’m flattered. She’s an excellent writer, and the fact that she seeks me out? Yeah, it makes me feel good about what I do.
I love the way she writes, but more importantly, I love the conversations we have as I read her work. I make notes as I go through. Sometimes I point out that she has used the same word multiple times and that it takes away from the fluency of the story. We look for alternate words or even decide it’s not needed so much. I ask questions about why things are worded a certain way, why paragraphs are divided just so, or what she means by a certain phrase. She is never offended by any of that. She answers and adds details, and asks me what I think. I make no changes to her work unless she asks me to after we’ve discussed something.
This particular assignment was a character analysis, and she had chosen one of my favorite books, I Know Why the Caged Birds Sing by Maya Angelou. and she chose to critique the Maya character. One of the things she wrote was about how Maya had overcome such adversity because of her strength, which led me to ask, “Do you think she overcame things because of her strength or did the overcoming make her strong?” We then spent ten minutes or so discussing this, both agreeing that it was sort of a chicken-egg question as it was hard to decide which one came first. We used words like strong and resilient. She pointed out how the story had given so many examples of things that had shaped and influenced Maya’s life, and how someone who wasn’t as strong would’ve crumbled under the weight of such adversity.
We continued to edit her paper and the conversation turned to why some people are able to handle things better than others and the fact that adversity comes in many forms. We talked about the fact that Babe Ruth struck out more often than he hit home runs, Walt Disney was told he wasn’t very creative, and that Steve Jobs was once fired from Apple. She wondered aloud how many ordinary people were built up or torn down by someone’s words.
I shared a couple of my own experiences with her – the high school guidance counselor who told me I couldn’t handle two math classes at once, and my first college adviser who told me that if I was going to take an education course I should “drop out of school, get married and have kids because that’s all your life will be worth anyway,” Because of who I was (and still am), I refused to let either of them tell me what I couldn’t do. Their words made me angry and determined to prove them wrong.
We laughed about it, and I made sure to say that I wasn’t comparing myself to the likes of Maya Angelou or Steve Jobs, but that because of my experiences, I have always tried to think about what I say to students because I don’t know how those words will be heard.
We finished her paper, and the conversation again turned to Maya’s character. Something that stood out was that she did not let the negatives define who she was, and I said that I thought that was the most valuable lesson we could learn from her. Adversity can shape you, but it shouldn’t define you. You should define your own limits.
“Life has no limitations, except the ones you make.” ~ Les Brown