American Life, Education, Life, Music

Jamais je ne t’oublierai

Jamais je ne t’oublierai
(I will never forget you)

Long before we ever had to bury a 9-year-old fellow citizen who was collateral damage in an attempted political assassination, long before I moved to France and learned the chorus of that classic French children’s song À la claire fontaine, which maybe beautiful little Christina Green would’ve liked to sing, I taught a summer class in creative writing at a local high school.

It was an optional class for some students and mandatory for others. And it was obvious who was who.


Most creative writing classes teach kids to write short stories and poems, both of which are wonderful…if you’re good at writing those kinds of things, which I’m not.

So I decided to teach what I know: first-person essay, same as this blog.

(Educators often refer to “disadvantaged” students, a euphemism for minority students with low language skills − even if their native language is English − in living situations not conducive to academics, growing up in poverty.

Or some combination of these factors.

Nobody’s arguing about how important, and challenging, it is to help these kids lift themselves up, and keep going strong through graduation. Public school volunteers can be part of that village. If you can and aren’t, please step up.

But think, too, about the poverty of prosperous but inattentive parents, who don’t read term papers and thus are the last to catch on that their “advantaged” children get decent enough grades, but can’t write well enough not to struggle in a competitive university.

There’s also the poverty of overwhelmed or ambivalent teachers, who pass these kids to the next grade without challenging them with harder material.

Finally, there’s the poverty of a voting public in denial, still willing to believe that deep, ongoing funding cuts in public education are unfortunate but somehow not disastrous.)

Good writing is some about talent, but mostly about practice. Same as learning a sport, or a musical instrument. You get better by doing a lot of it and you do a lot of it by taking a creative writing class from me.

So enough already with the complaining.

First writing assignment: who will you never forget?

To head off the prom night sob stories, which for teenagers – living by default in the present tense − forebode decades of loneliness and hopeless misery, I suggested a range of ideas:

No matter how long it’s been, whose voice, if he or she called you out of the blue today, would you recognize immediately? Who used to be in your life and isn’t anymore, but you think of every day?

When someone says, “You remind me so much of…” who do you wish they’d say? …or not wish?

Who did you meet by chance and meant something important to you? Who did you observe, even if you never met in person, who made a lasting impression on you?

Whose voice do you hear in your head?

Their responses ranged from hilarious to heartbreaking. The topic summaries impressed me so much that I kept a list of them and found it again among my documents in storage.

Here’s a sampling:

My step-brother who is a lot older than me. I was so excited to finally have a brother! He visited us once and never came back.

The President. He came here when he was campaigning. He shook my hand and told me to study hard. I’ve been doing that except for chemistry.

My mom always tells me I’m fat and I don’t want her to be happy with her boyfriend. I hate his &#%*@ ^<#(*%!!!!!

My coach because he kicked me off the team for fighting and bad grades. Then our team went to state and I didn’t get to go. I hated him for awhile and learned my lesson.

I have a twin brother and I really wish I didn’t look like him but I can’t help it.

My grandfather died on a weekend and I had to go back to school on Monday. I know he’s watching me from heaven, though.

The baby I had summer of sophomore year that nobody knew about. My parents made me give it up for adoption.

…which brings to mind the first line of that chorus:

Il y a longtemps que je t’aime
(I have loved you for so long)

Here are just a few of the many people I’ll never forget:

My dad, who taught me to work hard, prayerfully form my own convictions, and have a tender heart for people who are lost, broken, and alone.

My high school calculus teacher Mr. Howard Swanson, who unknowingly gave me the 1 “B” that prevented me from being one of our class valedictorians, who made sure every student got as much individual help as he or she needed, for as long as it took, to succeed. He provided at the same time a safe haven from bullying, long before that term ever made headlines, by keeping his class open after school and during lunch.

General Colin Powell, who spoke at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC one Veterans Day and made me realize that, regardless of politics, we’re among giants.

…and my friend Nee in Thailand, who lost her sister-in-law in the tsunami and spent a terrifying night on a mountain on Phi Phi island with her infant son. Nursing other women’s babies, too: now orphans, hungry and crying for their mothers.

Last but not least, 2 little girls on the LIRR.

I was in New York for a few days on a humanitarian project and was staying with friends on Long Island, who are reading this. (Thanks again for your hospitality.) One day on my commute on the Long Island Rail Road, I sat with a mother and her 2 young daughters. She was taking them to grandma’s on her way to work.

The mom sat across from me and the girls on either side of me, close, their arms in mine.

(Few white kids I know would ever react this warmly to a parent-approved acquaintance, however friendly, and even fewer white parents would allow it. How sad.)

The girls asked me my name. I told them. They repeated it. Their mom said, “There’d better be a Miss or Mrs. in front of that!”

“Yes, ma’am,” they said, in unison.

We talked all the way into town. When we parted ways, the little girls jumped up and each kissed me on the cheek, their braids bouncing.

“Be good!” they said.

A man sitting near us said, “I guess you’d better.”

I’d better.


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