Although I cannot pin down the exact moment, somewhere along the line my thoughts became words written in liquid light, waiting to be tied down with my pen. I took in the world as it is and was dissatisfied so I created my own. Somewhere along the line the curly lines scribbled between the blue lines of my notebook paper became my lifeline. Again, and again writing calmed the storm of my raging thoughts and led me to agency. Again, and again writing has healed and saved me.
As a child I was my family’s resident story teller. I wove imaginative characters, creatures, and settings into my everyday play. My brother and I had our own language and everyday we retreated to our own world. I was the family expert on trips and vacations because when I told the story I told everything. I observed and soaked in the smells, the sounds, the sights, and the feelings. Alicia, the detailed one. Alicia, the observer. Alicia, the quiet-but-once-you-get-her-talking-she-won’t-stop one. But as I grew, the story telling was tedious and my listeners not as willing to sit through an overly detailed retelling of events. Then it became Alicia, the one whose story I don’t have time for, honey, I’m in the middle of cooking or I’m in the middle of my homework, Boo.
But I still had stories to tell so I became a story hoarder. I collected my dreams and wrote them down in secret, only sharing them with my panel of stuffed animal observers who listened attentively on my bed each night. I recorded moments of our family road trips in my summer journals I never shared. I created my own worlds. I wrote poems. I wrote short stories. I wrote songs. I wrote prayers. At school I was the smart kid, the awkward kid, the kid who wore baggy boy clothes and who felt uncomfortable in her own skin. But at home I created my own reality.
Writing saved me when I switched schools in fifth grade. At my old school, I used to feel okay with being a “floater” with no close friends. I used to organize the playground activities. I used to love deep conversations with my teachers that kept me from catching the bus home from school. Things changed at the new school: I could not connect with the girls who were supposed to be my friends and I felt no place for me there so I started to change myself. I spent more and more time in front of the mirror. More time hating who I was, obsessing over the baby fat that clung to my cheeks, the colic at the crown of my head, and the way my nose looked from the side. I would cover a portion of my stomach, pulling it to the side and wishing that was where my flesh ended. I could not smile without lifting my hand to cover my cheeks as my lips pushed them back. I would rather have died than wear my hair down. I never wore shorts or else people would see the disgusting way my knee looked when I sat cross-legged. I obsessed over the way my voice sounded. I hated what I thought people thought about me. I hated real life, but in my journal, I wrote how I was lost. I wrote how I hated myself. I wrote how I was lonely. I recreated myself and drew up for myself a new world. Many times, I wished myself away from this earth. But every time the writing reminded me of my own special existence.
Writing saved me when screaming echoed through my house every night and every morning. Writing saved me when my seventh grade “best” friend decided I no longer existed. Writing saved me when the bedroom next to mine was empty because my family member was admitted long term to the hospital. Writing saved me when a girl outed my first crush and when I broke up with my first “love.” And even when my freedom was taken from me, writing saved me when I testified in court against my abuser after I escaped.
Without my secret journals filled with my adolescent prayers and hope and dreams my voice would have been suffocated early on. I would have lost the ability to speak when my first romantic interest manipulated me with threats of suicide. When I felt increasingly distanced from my parents. When I struggled with my health. When I moved out for the first time. When I promised to starve myself so I wouldn’t gain that pound. When I cut myself for the first time. When I was sexually assaulted for the first time. When I was physically abused for the first time. But because of writing I held onto my voice.
I have experienced first-hand the power of writing for personal growth, healing, and change. Our students have similar experiences, many of them far more horrific than mine. Their stories need to be validated, heard, and worked through. Writing is one of the many gifts I can bring my students as a tool to navigate the world they live in. Writing is one of the most powerful tools for healing. This is why I believe that every student is a reader and every student is a writer. English education is for all students, regardless of cultural and socio-economical background, and imparts literacy to the next generation which is a human right for all people. By learning clear, respectful, and constructive language in the English classroom, students acquire the tools to share their worldviews with their peers and create a safe environment with equality at the center.
Through writing I was able to wrestle with the events happening in my life and big issues I faced, like my declining mental health issues, domestic abuse, rampant self-hatred, and a confused identity. Words enabled me to process my troubles and reflect on who I was and wanted to be. In this way the language arts classroom has the potential to lead students towards meaningful reflection and personal growth. English education connects students to the human spirit through universals – metaphysical and existential – in human thought and reflection that are common between cultures and across the span of history. English education empowers students to speak out about injustices and values each individual’s experiences. Language in this way is a vehicle for change and healing as adolescents navigate a stressful period of their lives.
I write before I make decisions and before I speak about anything of great importance. I sincerely believe that my ability to think clearly and critically about events in my life is due to my practice of writing. The language arts, including reading, writing, and speaking, are essential components of thinking. English education teaches precision of thought and critical thinking through the act of writing. Students come in contact with various forms of text and are surrounded by arguments. English education teaches students to critically analyze sources in a variety of mediums through research and academic writing.
Teaching language arts is humanistic and democratic in that it values the voice of every citizen. Developing student writing and speaking skills strengthens us as a democratic nation and teachers can positively influence the next generation of citizens. English education gives students the tools for peace making by changing mindsets and defying culture norms through writing. English education teaches essential skills for a student’s full participation in society, digital and physical. The language arts are absolutely necessary, especially in America where a person’s use of language immediately defines their intelligence, social mobility, and access to resources. Language arts education therefore is morally essential to sustaining a peaceful, functional democracy.
I believe there is no greater gift I can give to my students to improve their lives than the language arts. Just as Susan Orlean, author and staff writer for the New Yorker, beautifully wrote:
All indications to the contrary, our voices matter to each other, that we do wonder what goes on inside each other’s head; that we want to know each other, and we want to be known. Nothing is more meaningful– more human, really — than our efforts to tell each other the story of ourselves, of what it’s like to be who we are, to think the things we think, to live the lives we live.
I can’t wait to hear the stories my students have yet to tell – the stories that will be their lifelines in difficult times.