Friday, October 08, 2004

The First Day of Class 

Tuesday night was the first meeting of the memoir writing class that I'm taking at UW Extension this quarter. I haven't taken a real class since finishing architecture school 16 years ago. I've gone to continuing education seminars, and the occasional short workshop, but nothing on the scale of this full-quarter, 3-hours-each-Tuesday class. Given that I enjoy school, and learning with other people, it's surprising to me that I've waited so long to do this.

Before I left for class, I was talking with Paul. I was excited and nervous, and he got right to the heart of the matter. "We forgot to get you new pencils! Do you have a new notebook?" I laughed. The first day jitters are still much the same for me as they were when I set off to school with thick pencils, a Big Chief tablet and a box of crayons. I'm clearly out of practice. I had not armed myself with pristine supplies - a new notebook in a favorite color, two or three of my favorite brand of fine-point felt pen. I grabbed a notebook from the stack on my desk; paused to locate a special purple ball point pen, and headed out into the damp Seattle evening.

As I drove to campus, the first-day questions came out of hiding: Will I like my teacher? Will she like me? Will I make friends? Will my writing be good enough? Will I be good enough? I buried them under more mundane concerns: where do I park? where is the building? the classroom? Not wanting to be late, I had given myself more than enough time to get to class. Not wanting to be early, and sit in a quiet room with a bunch of strangers for any longer than necessary, I spent the extra time reading flyers on the bulletin board in the hallway. I walked into class two minutes before its scheduled start time.

The teacher walked in right on time, shuffled some papers, called the roll. Right away, she was taking us back into our memories. "Roll call. Just like in second grade. If you have a nickname, tell me what it is. Can you picture your second grade teacher? How many of you can remember her name?" She told us a bit about herself, and her background as a writer and writing teacher. Then came the "why I'm here" portion of the class, during which each of us got to say something about ourselves, and what we're writing, or want to write. I have told Paul's and my story often enough in the past few months that I can talk about it easily; not so for some students in this class. An elegant woman my mother's age spoke about never having written anything personal, then began to cry as she told us that her son had killed himself 18 months ago, and that she hoped to write her way to some peace about his death. Our teacher was across the room within moments, a packet of tissues in her outstretched hand. She was gentle but matter-of-fact in asking for a little more information, then moving on. "I can tell this class is going to get very personal very quickly," were the first words out of the next woman's mouth.

Indeed it will. Starting in a couple of weeks, we will be reading - and writing critiques of - one another's writing. For next week, we are to write one page about one of our early memories: a song, a scent, a pet. We will read these aloud in class. (Reading aloud! More memories from second grade...) And we are each to write a one-page summary/outline/plan for the memoir that we imagine writing... and bring copies for everyone in the class. So, next Tuesday evening, I'll receive 22 of these, from people who will not remain strangers for long.

Class was Tuesday; it's now Friday. I have not yet bought the books for the class (Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior). I have not yet started my assignments for this week. I have thought about them, but this is a writing class, so I'm supposed to, you know, actually write something. Now you have some idea of what I'll be doing this weekend.