I sat with my damp face in my palms, and my bony elbows dug into the desk, heavy with despair about my memoir. Get a hold of yourself, I thought. You’ve seen this before. What did you say to your kindergartners when they were near tears?
I often consoled them. It is hard to write, isn’t it? The people who wrote the books we read started writing in kindergarten. I did not tell them that some of those authors grew up in houses full of books or that English, most likely, was their first language. I, myself, did not speak English when I began eighth grade in upstate New York, four months after escaping Vietnam.
I taught my kindergartners by reading aloud, pointing to words as I read. I made a point of jotting down notes to show them how the words had the power to communicate, telling stories.In my memoir I wanted to tell my story of a war refugee turned volunteer floral designer for the Museum of Fine Arts. In 2015, after the youngest of my three children left for college, I started my training as a writer at GrubStreet. I wanted to play with words. Like my students with their alphabets, I began taking half-day classes on scene, voice, and place. I gathered ideas from the assigned readings. My “shitty first drafts,” replete with run-on sentences and grammatical mistakes, reminded me of my kindergartners’ gnarly letters. When they made B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y cards for each other the letters floated all over the page.
During the decade I taught in Dorchester for the Boston Public Schools, I looped, as my principal recommended. I taught the same group of students for two consecutive years to provide continuity. Some of my colleagues feared being stuck with the troublemakers for that whole time. I did have one child who brought in a pocketknife to get wee-venge on the boy who had shoved him the day before. But my kindergarten troublemakers became hard to part with by the end of first grade.
I felt a similar attachment to the group of committed writers I met in 2019 during my intensive year in GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator. Workshopping their memoirs reminded me of watching my kindergartners marvel at each other’s block constructions or Play-Doh creations. Questions were asked. Suggestions were offered. Snacks and drinks were shared. And I do not mean apple juice.
By the end of first grade, all my former kindergartners could write sentences and short paragraphs. Most of them had lacked the usual foundation of preschool when they started kindergarten, so they had not been able to write their names. There were students whose letter A’s were incomplete. The vertices did not quite meet. Sometimes the horizontal bar didn’t touch the vertices. I had them play with clay or pound nails into tree trunk slices, courtesy of a tree crew I passed on my commute one day. I thought if they did something they did not usually get to do at home they’d have fun, improve their motor control, and gain the strength necessary for penmanship.
After the Incubator ended in 2020, I took classes at Hedgebrook, Kundiman, Catapult, and GrubStreet to improve my control and the strength of my craft. I saw familiar faces in some of the classes. We touched base in the Zoom Chat about our progress and setbacks. We exchanged emails about how to expand, delete, and focus based on the feedback we’d received. Some of us took time off. We were no different from my kindergartners, who moved to the library corner when their block towers fell, switching activities to re-center their energy. My kindergartners eventually made their way back to what they were required to do—learn to write.
I believe learning and teaching is a delicate dance between the student and the teacher. I tell students that if they do not understand something, I am at least fifty percent responsible. I am now the student, fifty percent responsible for learning to write. Sometimes I failed to upload my essays on time. Some weeks I didn’t meet my word count. I watched two more episodes of “Dix Pour Cent” instead of incorporating my classmates’ feedback. My instructors reassured me. Life happens. Self-care matters.
I remember reassuring my kindergartners. First they gripped the pencil hard and guided the lead to form a letter, let’s say a W. It looks like a series of playground slides converging. Then one day, they wrote “We are friends” on a piece of wide ruled paper to give to a classmate. As they grew, I hoped they would write questions with Who, Why, What, When, and How to demand answers from their world.
Telling my story is a way of claiming my space in this world. I want to know the Who, Why, What, When, and How of my childhood as the eldest of eight, the French colonization in my Catholic upbringing, the war in Vietnam, the epic poetry of my native country, and my eventual resettlement into a mostly white affluent suburb. At times, I want to quit writing my memoir because an unexamined life seems easier. Then I recall what I told my kindergartners. It is hard to write, isn’t it? The people who wrote the books we read started writing in kindergarten.