Tanya Nichols: Students’ writing touches teacher’s heart

The Fresno BeeJune 27, 2014 

This is a test gary funkFor the past few years I've had the pleasure of teaching a memories to memoir writing class for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. These students are older than the college students I normally teach. When I first accepted the course, I was curious about the type of writing I would see and excited to read stories from students who are older than me. After all, I'm usually the oldest person in the class, the one who has seen more of life than the young men and women in the desks, the one with experience and maybe a little wisdom. That would not be the case with Osher students.

Osher students sign up for the class because they want to write their stories. Many aren't sure where or how to begin, but they have stories to tell. I was certain I could help them discover the joy of creating a story from their past, to see it breathe new life on the page with setting and dialogue and significance. I was eager to teach them everything I could about writing and story telling. The surprising thing is, as I look back on my time with Osher, these students have taught me far more then I could ever teach them. They have shown me time and again the things in this life that matter, that are worthy of my attention and care.

Each class session begins with a brief discussion about writing; the writers then break into small groups to share their stories with others, giving their words power and audience. It is not unusual for one group to burst into a round of laughter while across the room another group is reaching for tissues as tender emotions overwhelm the writer as she reads. As the group members listen, they offer encouragement, advice and praise for the life and efforts of the reader. They care about the stories and they care about each other.

I move from group to group, listening. An older man reads his story about the first girl he ever loved, a girl from his sixth grade class, a girl who broke his young heart. I then listen to a woman read about the shame she still feels about a fender bender that happened fifty years earlier when she backed into a car in a parking lot. She lied and told her father someone hit her car and didn't leave a note. One gentleman recalls the time his neighbor, a talented musician, committed suicide after losing his hearing in World War I. More than eighty years after the event, the sight of the man dead at his piano still haunts him, his hatred of war forever strong. Another woman reads about a grandmother giving her silver dollars only to have them stolen by her younger brother, the treasured coins used to buy candy. They write of beloved pets, parents who still live and parents who live on in their memories. They write of childhood friends and lifelong friends. They write of love and sorrow, hardships and blessings, the stones and diamonds of lives well lived.

I read everyone's stories to offer a bit of feedback and encouragement. It is when I am alone with their words that I begin to understand. The Osher students are teaching me. I have learned that there is beauty in the small things of life. The plastic ring that turns your finger green, the dog who travels the countryside with you, a first kiss on a hot summer night, a broken vase that can't be mended. There is also the treasure of family and friends, relationships that live on in us even when that person is gone, relationships that we sometimes take for granted as we work for that promotion, that next level of success. I have learned that words that are spoken or perhaps unspoken can sustain us or haunt us for years, for a lifetime. I have learned that true love lives on, even if the marriage doesn't. I have learned that our actions matter and the past cannot be redone like a missed stitch. We live with our regrets as we live with our joys. Kindness is remembered fondly and cherished while past hurts may have healed, but the pain still tugs at the heart, wishing for a different ending. These are the memories that are turned into memoir, the stories to be shared and passed on to readers who might only know the writer through the story.

I just agreed to teach the Memories to Memoir class again in the fall. I began to worry that I didn't have much more to share since many of the students repeat the class again and again, always writing more. I remind myself this is a class of writing life stories. And there is always another story.

Tanya Nichols is a lecturer in the English Department at Fresno State. Her novel, "The Barber's Wife," will be available this fall.

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