Yesterday Whitney and I enjoyed a magical morning in a classroom in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods of Chicago’s South Side: the
Auburn-Gresham neighborhood. Fourth, fifth and sixth graders in a Montessori program at Oglesby Elementary are writing essays for a book they’ll publish in November, and their teacher asked me to come talk about memoir-writing.
The kids and I had to talk about other stuff first, though. Like what it’s like to be blind, whether I can blink or not, does my dog sleep with me in my bed, how I play piano if I can’t see the keys, how come I open my eyes at all if I can’t see. Then a thoughtful fifth-grader asked, “Do your eyes hurt?” Such a sweet, caring question. “I can’t see anything,” I said. “But no, my eyes don’t hurt at all.”
That answer prompted a question I’d never been asked before. “Can you cry?” For a quick moment I considered explaining what tear ducts are, telling the kids how they work, but then I thought about Jamal, a sixth-grade boy in class who’d described the memorial t-shirt he was wearing — it had photos of a cousin who’d died on it. Another boy in class told me he gets angry sometimes because his father is in prison. I kept my answer simple. “Yes, I can cry” I said. “And sometimes, I do.”
I pictured the kids nodding their heads, understanding. The class was still for a moment, but then a boy in back broke the silence. “Would you win in a staring contest?” We all had fun with that — his question led to a heavy discussion of staring-contest rules. Do you have to look right into someone’s eyes, what if you’re close but not looking right in their eyes, is it just all about who blinks first?
After the Q&A came the writing exercise. We all took a minute to write a few sentences that define our lives, then we read our sentences out loud. I learned that Jamal is new to the Montessori class, but his little sister Shamiya has been at Oglesby Montessori for years. Jamal wrote: “I seen too much drama in my life. I wish I had a dog for a best friend and happiness.” A fifth-grade girl wrote this: “I’m oldest. One brother, 1 sister. Mom raised. Grandma died. Auntie baby died when came out. Happy that I am happy.”
We went through an editing process to cut our stories down to six words, then to three words. The fifth-grade girl decided on “I’m oldest. Happy.” A boy in class ended up with “I am awesome.” Jamal’s three words were downright poetic:” Drama and happiness.”
The classroom teacher had asked me to come up with a writing prompt for the kids to work on after Whitney and I went home, so I told them to finally cut their piece down to one word. “That one word is your writing prompt for today,” I said, and as Whitney and I left to go home, they all squirreled away to start writing on their topics. The kids promised they’ll read their stories out loud if Whitney and I return to Oglesby Montesorri, so among other topics, I can look forward to hearing essays about:
A teacher-aide told me later that Jamal settled on “drama” as his one word, but then found that topic difficult to write about with all his classmates there in the room with him. “I asked if he thought he could work on writing his memoir at home, and he said he thought he could,” the teacher aide said, adding that she’d suggested maybe he could write about something happy while he was still there at school. “He and I thought he could write about what it has been like to experience Montessori class as a new kid.”
A 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization called Oglesby Montessori Foundation supports and advocates for the Montessori program Whitney and I visited yesterday. The Foundation is looking for help funding chess and yoga classes and camping trips to Wisconsin, the Nature’s Classroom Institute, and Camp MacLean. Please consider donating.