Learning from students

            Just read a very fine master’s thesis from one of the creative nonfiction students at Chatham.  She cites a 1997-study by the Department of Agriculture on food waste in the United States, amounting to an estimated 96 billion pounds of edible food in just one year.  This figure included unsold store products, uneaten portions of meals at restaurants, spoiled or forgotten food in our refrigerators, but not food waste on farms.  To try to make sense of this 96 billion pounds, she took the Coast Guard’s average “assumed weight” of a person, 185 pounds, and found that the number was equal to the weight of the total populations of   The United States, Canada, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Puerto Rico, Dominica, Barbados, the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, and Cuba.  If that doesn’t get us composting, what does?

            Now I’ve had a bad experience with composting.  You might remember my “black thumb?”  It affects this as well.

            I had a make-shift composter, a garbage can that I laced with holes to aerate or do something scientific like that.  Most of Pittsburgh’s rat population decided to dine, and my husband hunted and depleted them with Pied Piper fervor.  Free of this menace, I’ll have to be less casual about the process, but I am inspired.

            Inspiring, too, was the student’s process in writing her thesis.  She first thought of such large themes as human vs. nature.  Finally, she simply thought of an important feeling that stirred her and drifted back through her experience to capture a story depicting that emotion.  She felt stricken at the huge task of writing this great and final project to fulfill her degree.  But a walk with her director, also the director of the M.F.A. program at Chatham, wonderful Sheryl St. Germain, calmed her. Sheryl said, “Just write, and the words will come.”

            The student said, in fact, that putting herself (butt) in the chair and beginning, thinking always of the stories behind the feelings, the words came.  Sometimes in the early pages, the theme—the story—came, sometimes midway, and often only at the end.  But always, she found her story for the essay.  Then she backtracked and honed and shaped and deleted.

            I think this process could be helpful to all of us.  The student also talked about using “riffs,” on some feeling, sensation, or experience.  The jazz term could lead to terrific metaphors that are very fresh.

            So as Deborah Kerr sang a half century ago in the King and I, “as a teacher I’ve been learning. You’ll forgive me if I boast…” 


About Sally Hobart Alexander

Blinded at the age of twenty-six, I left California and elementary school teaching for life in Pittsburgh, Pa. There, I met my husband, got a Masters' degree in social work, had two kids, now 35 and 32, and became a writer. Surprisingly, the writing career led me full-circle to teaching, and I teach in Chatham University's M.F.A. program and lead two writing critique groups. Always, since the age of 26, I have traveled, not in the stereotypic darkness attributed to blindness, but a mist. My blog then, "traveling through the mist" will deal with issues in my culturally different life as a blind writer, teacher, speaker, and human being.
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