High School

Teaching Memoir to 10th Graders by Andrew May, HS Humanities Teacher

“In some ways, writing a memoir is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right. Sure, there’s the pleasure of doing work guaranteed to engage you emotionally — who’s indifferent to their own history? The form always has profound psychological consequences on its author. It can’t not. What project can match it for that?”
~ Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir

As I bravely stared down my teaching assignments heading into my first year at SWS, I suddenly felt punched in the gut. I had been handed the Memoir course for 10th grade English, and to say I was sheepish would be an oversimplification.

Tenth grade gets a bad rap in Waldorf schools, as many teachers and parents can attest. It’s often the roughest year of high school on many fronts. That’s because, at a deeper level, it’s when students start to deeply navel-gaze and become frightfully solipsistic (no joke: that’s Latin for “alone with the self”).

Students at this age can get lost (“I found myself within a Dark Wood / For the right way had been missed”, to prefigure our study of The Divine Comedy in grade 11).

The question quickly became: how would this course  help my students? Not just become better, more proficient and savvy users of the English language — that’s a given, and I am looking to extend the purpose beyond testable skill-building. I wondered how I could help them through an often unsettling and alienating time that happens to all teenagers on their way to adulthood.

I was already a fan of memoirists and the power of their writing—Joan Didion’s literally saved my life—and I had already read the new text the Humanities Department selected for the course (Malala Yousafzai’s 2013 I Am Malala). I thought this would be fairly straightforward high school English fare: start with reading assignments, add a healthy dose of discussion and activities designed around textual analysis and a critique of Yousafzai’s style, throw in a few tableaux vivants (a mural exercise or two), gently fold in a lesson on Pakistan’s political and linguistic history, and pair the whole thing with a bright, crisp, 3-week literary analysis writing project.

In the end I kept the tableaux and the discussions, but the writing project turned into something else entirely. Here’s a taste of what this became:

     “Why did you leave?” I asked him. He sat there, just a little too big for the carved wooden chair and in a silence so long that I started to think he wouldn’t answer. But eventually he did. “I wasn’t ready to be a father then.”

     It didn’t occur to me until afterward what a crappy answer that was. Fatherhood isn’t always something you get to be ready for. But that was the closest I’ve gotten to an explanation from him. That old familiar feeling of resentment still hovers in the back of my mind, some days more prominently than others. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive my father for what he did, but I can always fall back on the knowledge that, despite all of his flaws, he loves me. And in the end, I think, that’s all that really matters.

Picture me turning into a weepy puddle at my desk, my correction pen frozen above this gut-spilling, soul-purging writing. Here’s another:

     But one day, I realized that the things I was most afraid of, the things I would die for before sharing with anyone, could actually be shared in the form of written words.

     One day, I realized that my thoughts and ideas, no matter how weird and messed up they might seem, could create words in a sequence that no one else’s could.

     And one day, when I was sitting at my desk and a tiny voice in some dark corner of my mind asked me what good reason I had for living, another voice responded, Think of all the words you have to tell.

This course has become a meeting with the Self at a point in life when the Self begins to be doubted and even abused. It’s a meeting with a Self that transcends the  youthful narcissism teenagers fall prey to.

When a student complains that they have lived an uneventful 16 years that’s not up to snuff for a writing assignment, I remind them that they are the only person on this planet who has walked in their shoes, and they’re the only one who can tell their story.

Sometimes the topic comes quickly; other times it’s a knock-down fight to discover The Thing. But everyone eventually lands, builds an angle, plays with The Story and with memory and with time, and the writing process takes over from there.

When all is said and done, I’ve found myself sitting at my desk in tears because of how beautiful, how meaningful, how honest, and how vulnerable my students are able to be in this form. It has changed who I am as a teacher.

Teaching this course has helped me make connections in the community. I’ve asked Bob Oyafuso, an amateur memoirist and Fair Oaks resident I met through the Fair Oaks Ecohousing community, to share his work and experience with my classes. He shared his memoir with us, talked about his writing process, and my students have had a chance to ask someone other than teachers or parents for advice on writing.