And so I’m doing this workshop, talking about writing and teaching writing to about 25 local K-12 teachers. They teach language arts, and maybe some are writers themselves.
One of my themes is that writing is both hard work and play. On the one hand, it can be fun and creative and sometimes you get into that flowing stream, that zone of intensity when words cascade and you’re close to the ideas you’re trying to capture, hold onto, get down.
On the other hand, writing is a tedious labor of crafting and seeking the just-right word and precisely expressing meanings — doing the tough work so the reader doesn’t have to. And that can be a demanding, exacting chore, wrangling complexity into simplicity.
While I’m taking them through some writing exercises they can share with their students — some that are fun, others that demonstrate writing as mental anguish — I explain another manifestation of the duality of work and play. That is the notion that, as you write, your cheerleader sits upon one shoulder while your internal censor sits on the other. One offers confidence, encouraging you to merrily keep going. The other inserts self-doubt, pushing you to step on the brakes, hit delete. They argue back and forth — Stop! Go! — as you struggle to string words together.
It may have been Sonia Gernes, the poet and longtime Notre Dame teacher of poetry, who first introduced me to this idea. It is one of those singular statements that have stayed with me over time, insinuating themselves into my personal body of knowledge, and I am grateful to all those whose words have entered my life in that way. Teachers are responsible for many of them — and usually without knowing it.
Our editor’s annual Thanksgiving thank-you goes out to all the teachers who have made an impact on our lives. Photo by Matt Cashore ’94
I was thinking all this, facing this classroom of teachers, as I was expressing my respect and admiration for the work they do. The dedication, the gifts, the hours preparing, delivering, grading papers — and the students exiting their classrooms year after year, hardly looking back, much less saying thank you.
I thought then about teachers who had influenced me, and I found myself talking about Sister Ann Patricia, who, as my eighth grade teacher, was instrumental in pointing me toward writing as a career.
I had not planned to talk about this nun, this youngish, blue-eyed member of the Daughters of the Cross, the religious order staffing Saint John Berchmans School (along with Sisters Carmel, Lucy, Eugenia and Damian — my first, fourth, fifth and sixth grade teachers). But there she was, foremost in my thoughts at the moment, lodged in my memory, leading that class full of boys (boys and girls divided accordingly once we reached the seventh grade, so as not to let hormones impede our education).
At that moment — facing those teachers — it seemed so relevant and right to credit her with exposing me, at a young age, to that classic duality of creativity: work and play.
Each week in Sister Ann Patricia’s class, we had to write something. The assignment was all about creative self-expression: Write a poem about a photo in a magazine. Write a letter to a person in the newspaper, a haiku about your favorite animal. Recreate a story from your past. Describe your room and let’s see if we can guess who you are.
I loved it; it was fun. And I found I had a knack for doing it.
But Sister Ann Patricia also drilled us rigorously in the finer points and conventions of language. We diagrammed sentences all year long. It’s a lost art, diagramming sentences. But I loved that, too. It gives you the bare bones of a sentence, maps out its structure, delineates in blueprint form where everything goes, how it fits together, what modifies what, prepositional phrases and adverbial clauses. Diagramming sentences enforced the methodical precision, elegance and discipline of sentence building.
Work and play. I embraced both, saw the value in each, learned how the two meshed in necessary tandem. And it was then, as an eighth grader, that I first entertained those thoughts of becoming a sports writer when my baseball-playing days were done. It seemed like something I could do. A job to enjoy.
That revelation was just one thing I picked up during the workshop with those teachers. That year with Sister Ann Patricia put me on a career course, the path of a lifetime. It hadn’t really occurred to me till then, but there it was.
I don’t know what became of Sister Ann Patricia. I don’t even know her real name, or if she remained a nun through the upheavals of Vatican II. But I remember her classroom, and how much she enjoyed teaching us boys, joining us during recess on the school playground in her long, black habit, no skin showing but her face and hands, how much fun she had hitting a baseball, playing tetherball, her long black rosary beads whipping off her hip as she flung the football spiraling.
There were things, too, she told me about myself in that year of adolescent awakening — how I was perceived by others, ways I should be better, clues to finding myself — that landed hard and stayed with me as I’ve gone through life.
It’s finally time to say thank you.
So this year’s Thanksgiving “thank you” goes to Sister Ann Patricia in my annual effort to pass along my gratitude to someone who did good things in my life. The hope each year is that the holiday will be more than turkey and football, but the time to say thanks to someone who passed through my life, leaving gifts. Like good teachers everywhere.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.