In preparation for graduation, we are asked to write a letter to chronicle our journey at Lesley University’s MFA program. Here is what I came up with:
My time at Lesley helped me not only develop my writing but my overall sense of commitment to the writing life. These two years have allowed me to lay down roots into myself by providing me with the opportunity to ground my life through my creative process. Lesley has set the stage for this commitment to transform into a lifetime of developing stories and essays.
My journey as a writer began when I learned how to write in English after fleeing the Gulf War in Kuwait. I would write stories about princesses escaping invasions or monsters transforming into people. Writing was my safe zone, my shock absorber.
But being a refugee made me feel as though I was always in the wrong place at the wrong time- as though my life couldn’t truly begin yet and I had to delay creative expression. I needed to save it for another place and time. Year after year, my mother would set off to explore other cities-traveling to Montréal, Detroit, Orlando, Santa Fe, even San Diego-with the hopes of leaving Rhode Island behind- (which we never did)- since we had to leave Kuwait in such a hurry, I understood that she was trying to make an informed choice about which community to lay down roots. However, this constant re-imagining of my future had the effect of distancing me from my present reality.
I lived in an imagined future, which, for an only child who lived in my mind to begin with, didn’t need much encouraging. From that young age that I was being set up to never truly commit to the present moment, to continue to live in the purgatory of if’s and maybe’s. Little did I know that there was no such thing as the perfect time.
My Lesley journey began shortly after I left my first teaching job. I taught at a charter school with a unique model, one that places teachers with the same group of 15 students all day for all 4 years of high school. One of my students, Ryan, I regarded as a member of my family after our long talks, family meetings, and journal writing sharing. Ryan and his family suddenly passed away from carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty water heater installation on New Years Day. I had to face the reality that nothing was guaranteed and life was not waiting for me or anyone else. I found it difficult to put off writing and my creative pursuits for another moment.
That summer, I started researching creative writing programs and visited Lesley’s summer session in June 2008. At that time, I had no writing sample, felt little inspiration, and had very little confidence, as I hadn’t written in years and had no idea where to begin. Apparently life had other things in mind because shortly after visiting Lesley I found out I was a pregnant with my son. The pregnancy, birth, and time to myself allowed me to begin the process of committing to my word and when my son was eight months old, my writing sample poured out like a flood. The sample that started out handwritten on journal paper turned into The Birthing Tree, my first story to be published (in the Masters Review), which I scribbled between nap-time and cooking.
After two years at Lesley, I developed my thesis, a collection of short stories. I feel that the stories represent my first years of immersing myself in the writing life well. I have covered an array of themes, narrative styles, and created memorable characters. My strengths include having varied interests-from science fiction to cultural and generational clashes. My ideas will keep me inspired for a long time. What I need to continue to work on is to just keep writing- by giving myself more time with my writing each day and continue learning about the world of publishing and business side of writing. I also need to keep my connections with my fellow writers strong and develop a routine of exchanging stories. I am looking forward to continuing my Lesley connection strong by becoming involved in the Alumni group.
Overall, I feel that were two years were well spent. I learned how to respect myself by respecting my writing time. I learned to quiet that negative voice in my head long enough to let my imagination do the talking at the keyboard and I learned how to feel out a story by listening to the characters. My first semester I developed my scene building skills and with my second semester, I focused on writing realistic and complex characters. Taking on a full time job during my final year threw me into the fire of the writing life and forced me to face some tough questions about whether it was the best idea to continue with the program. Only this time, instead of letting outside forces control my sense of timing, I committed to controlling it for myself and decided to stick it out. As a result, I wrote more than ever in my final year.
My plans for the future include writing fiction, non-fiction and science fiction, and teaching English to middle school students. I plan on attending next year’s RAWI conference-a conference of Arab-American writers, as well as the AWP conference and staying in touch with my Lesley community for years to come. Most notably, my plans for the future include my continue commitment to my writing, as it has served as both my anchor and my springboard.
I was 23 and fresh outta college. I loved my job…well. most of the time. I loved greeting my students in the morning, writing the daily journal prompt on the board. I loved taking my students on field trips to local point of interest- which in this alternative school there were plenty. I loved teaching my self-designed units on History of the Rhode Island slavery and Ethnic American Literature….plus, I was always a sucker for school supplies.
However, I strongly disliked the backdoor politics and bureaucracy that often comes with the package… and having to work through the legacy of segregated schooling on a daily bases. This was a small high school, unique in its model. Learning was project and internship based, and I was to stay with my 15 students all four years of high school, but it hadn’t had all its kinks worked out. A state charter school meant I worked with students from more privileged parts of the state that were reading at an advanced level alongside students from the inner city that had barely mastered elementary reading skills. It was challenging to say the least, but I loved it and felt grateful that I worked for a school that included individual goal setting in its model-which translated to lots of one on one time with each kid. Academics aside, my new position presented me with the responsibility of my students’ social engagement as well.
In other words, this wasn’t a job, it was a life-style choice. I single-handedly went from college graduate to adopted parent/mentor/big sister to 15 fourteen year olds…so whether it was a family issue, breakup, friend drama, or academic challenge, I had to be there…with bells on. and again, I loved it. At the time, I strongly felt that this approach to educating young people was the closest thing around to what I valued most; seeing the big picture, seeing each student as a whole…sure, I was exhausted…and my big plan of “teaching will allow time for writing” was completely out the window…and I wasn’t the only one. The other teachers all had trips, grad school plans, family plans–that was to start the moment those 4 years were done and the students graduated…like freezing our lives to move along the lives of others. I always looked up to the folks in my position that appeared as though they were balancing their life…but they were few and far between. Needless to say most of us looked forward to Christmas break.
The holiday came and went and my first day back I felt something was off. One of my students, Ryan was absent. Ryan was never absent. Ryan was respectful, polite, and quietly studious; a product of inner city school culture where bright students are discouraged from showcasing their academic talent. He wrote with a wisdom and clarity that surpassed even my high expectations. He was going places, possibility leaked from his pores. I called his home and no one answered, I assumed he was just sleeping in, we all have our off days after all… but I was wrong.
Oprah had a show about gut instincts once…and although I was never a fervent Oprah follower, I couldn’t help but to catch some sound bites from my mother’s daily Oprah-intake. I remember she interviewed a woman who claimed her body could tell something was wrong with her living room well before she got assaulted by someone who broke in. She just felt it in her gut.
I can honestly say my gut told me something was wrong that morning when he didn’t come to class. My body already knew. That is why when the school councilor pulled me out of staff meeting that afternoon to inform me that one of my students had been killed, I already knew it was Ryan: Fourteen year old, future music producer, brilliant writer, loved by all-Ryan.
What was initially thought of as a homicide turned out to be carbon monoxide poisoning. Ryan and his family all perished over winter break shortly after the faulty installation of a new water broiler. How cruel and unfair I thought to myself…
The following weeks proved to be some of the most challenging of my life. The forensics team needed time to complete their investigation and it was taking longer that expected. Having barely processed the information myself, I was given the responsibility of telling my students before they heard it on the news that night. Due to the school’s community-minded nature, I was to prepare press statements and take part in an endless barrage of press conferences, school assemblies, counseling sessions, memorial plans… It became my habit to sob for brief moments on my ride to work for that entire month. I began to wonder when exactly will I be able to fully grieve?
The funeral felt like a blessing to me. It was sunny and cold morning some time in late January and I was already cried out from the wake. The cemetery sits atop a hill in a park that is home to old growth oaks that overlooks a peaceful pond. I remember how good the sun felt on my face that day. I felt like a release to finally be able to say goodbye to Ryan in the physical form since I believe no one is ever really “gone”, just transitioned to another state.
This year marks the fourth anniversary of Ryan’s passing, and the fourth year that my former students and I meet at his grave on New Years Day.
We met in the afternoon, under a bright winter sky, the sun already lowering into the pond below. After a few minutes of chatting about our life changes; new college experiences, family updates, upcoming challenges…we join hands and take turns saying a prayer. We share memories and feelings about our loss and decorate his grave with flowers in his favorite color red…always the moment passes too quickly and off to our lives we must return–but, not before a proper reunion at everyone’s favorite pizza shop to ring in the New Year together.
One of my former students and close friend of Ryan, now a grown man- pointed out that he came against his mother’s pleadings. Its bad luck to visit the dead the first day of the New Year she said, why dwell in grief? We know we don’t visit to grieve, we visit to remember Ryan and all our good times with him, we visit to celebrate his life, those moments his physical presence impacted ours in brief, but important ways… and we do it on New Years because that is when Ryan passed- the last anyone heard from him was a little before midnight when he typed to a friend on myspace that he wasnt feeling well and was heading to bed. His last thoughts were wishing her a Happy New Year. That’s how we have come to remember him each year…. so instead of “we miss you Ryan”, its more like
“Happy New Year Ryan”