Monday, July 17, 2017

What Students Leave

This past weekend, I attended my first writers conference, the “All Write Now-Missouri” conference in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I went with the intention of meeting other writers and publishing professionals. I am proud to say I came back with a 2nd place award in the Non-Fiction Essay category for “What Students Leave”, a piece I wrote about 3 years ago. I’ve posted this online before, but am happy to share it again as an official award-winning piece!

Every once in a while, someone will post a link on FB to Taylor Mali’s spoken word video of his poem “What Teachers Make,” and tag me. I like the poem. I get it. But the last time I heard it, I started thinking more about what impact students have had on me. Lots of my pop culture knowledge is because of them; I’m not a big moviegoer, although there are several hundred movies on our Netflix queue. I don’t listen to the radio; my iPod has me spoiled and I want to listen to what I want to listen to when I want to listen. But the movies I do watch, the books I read, even the music I listen to, are influenced by the students I work with every day.
Last month, I watched SLC Punk!, a movie I’d heard about but never actually seen. One of our seniors, Ridge, did a monologue from the film for contest last year and I finally watched it this fall. That movie, well, as Mad Men’s Pete Campbell would say, “A thing like that!” I loved that movie for the window into a little subculture it chronicled and for the weird sense of nostalgia I experienced minus the benefit of ever having lived in Salt Lake City or been a punk. It’s enough that I lived through the ‘80s, right? And that I’ve known guys like Stevo and Heroin Bob at different times in my life? I wouldn’t have taken that particular cinematic trip without a student pointing the way. The same is true of Juno (which I loved) and The Phantom of the Opera (which I hated).

And the books! I hold Kyle responsible for a sleepless night finishing up Ender’s Game when he recommended it to me. I started it and I couldn’t stop until I knew what was going to happen to Ender and the other boys in the battle school, and I stayed up until 3 a.m. on a school night to find out. Jenna and Christian convinced me to try the Lord of the Rings trilogy again; the first of Peter Jackson’s movies had just come out, and we’d just started a Reading for Pleasure class at my school. Every day during that class, I’d step into Tolkien’s world, and then step out at the end of the hour. I rationed it like it was the last bar of dark chocolate I’d ever have, and it was all the more intense for it. When I ‘had’ to read Tolkien for an undergraduate class, I’d hated it. Flunked the test over The Hobbit. When a professor asked me to read it, I failed. When a student asked me, I loved it.

Then there’s the music. Music has a power that little else does. I don’t envy Proust his madeleine. Music has the power to transport me to other times and places. “Welcome to the Boomtown” from David and David comes up on my playlist, and suddenly I’m in a college van driving up to Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas for a speech tournament in the late ‘80s. Anything from the Supertramp album Breakfast in America  creates a multi-sensory memory of sitting on the hot sidewalk with Eric in front of Shepler Center at Cameron University during July of ’86 or ’87, when the idea of a fitness center or a park with gazebo wasn’t even a spark in someone’s brain. We listened to the cassette on one of those silver boom boxes that seemed to be everywhere. REM’s “Stand” makes the opening school bell of our production of “Voice from the High School” ring, and all of a sudden Carly, Adam, Will, and all the rest are pouring out of the school doors on the set. It was the first play I ever directed. I look at the playlist on my iPod and see songs students introduced me to that I couldn’t get out of my head. Cass played “Ain’t No Reason”; someone else brought me Iz Kamakawiwo'ole’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, Skylar offered Gary Jules’ cover of the Tears for Fears song “Mad World” and we used it for our production of “…And”. So many students, so many songs. Just yesterday, pulling up music for an upcoming production, Emma asked me to find the video for Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” and it wasn’t just the beauty of the song that broke my heart.

Students leave artifacts behind, notes and drawings and photos, and I cherish them. But they also haunt the movies and books and music in my world, and I cherish that even more.


  1. Jennifer or "Oakley" as you will always be to us, you have know idea how much reading this means to me. I couldn't agree more and you will probably never really comprehend what an amazing impact you make on the students and adults in your life for that matter. I didn't know you had a blog but I am about to subscribe! Love and miss you!

    1. Thank you! It's just like yesterday that I first walked in to the classroom, and no matter how long I teach, I feel as though all of my students should know each other. I mean, the kid that gouged the stage with his Trident last year should totally remember when the boys got to state one acts in Mustang after playing football at Miami an unnamed number of years ago, right?