Eight years of marriage to an abusive husband yielded bruised arms, bruised cheeks, and a battered soul. Yet some good came from those years of suffering. Now, she’s begun to talk about it all. How may one’s sufferings yield comfort, even joy, later?
A teacher asked his students on the first day of class to begin writing the first drafts of their autobiographies. Several students took quickly to the assignment. After all, one’s own story should be easy material about which to write, right? Perhaps. For some people. But not for at least one lady. What if, after all, one’s past is filled with memories, not of love, but of loss? How may one’s suffering be explained in a written assignment for school? How is one to even begin, if the pain is too close to the bone?
Ever noticed the old men with wrinkled skin that sit on the pine bench in a shopping mall? Sometimes they’re sipping coffee. Sometimes they’re wearing Members Only jackets and a fedora. Perhaps they have on plaid shirts with khaki pants. They wear brown Dr. Scholl’s loafers with thick comfortable soles. What are they doing? I used to think they were lonely or misplaced people. I don’t think that way as much anymore. Those wizened men are watching other people. They’re wondering about their stories. I like the way these bench observers seem unhurried, content to watch, sip their coffee, and imbibe their surroundings. You can see the sorrows written in their eyes, too. But they’ve learned to shape sorrows into lives. They’ve endured. And for some, they’ve gained wisdom. They’ve seen into the heart of the matter. More than a little of that skill came by leaning in—attending—to people at the right time.
When I, as the teacher, asked for the students’ drafts to be turned in the following week, one lady’s eyes told the story, even before she spoke. But she did finally speak.
“I, um, really struggled. May I have some more time to work on it?” she asked.
I suddenly felt like the old man on the bench at the mall. I watched the lady. I approached where she sat. She cowered behind her desktop computer.
“I just can’t seem to find the words. I’m really sorry,” she said.
“May I see what you have written so far?” I asked.
“Well, it’s not much,” she said, “and it’s not very good.”
“Let’s just take a look, okay?” I asked.
It didn’t take long to understand. I began reading. She’d married when she was 17 years old, already pregnant with her first child. Out of shame over the pregnancy, she had married the child’s father. Over the next eight years, she endured physical and emotional abuse. But her parents told her, “You will stay married. You will make it work.” And she never told her parents of the degree, or types, of abuse. She just told them it was tough being married.
Eight years and three more children. And abuse through it all. How could she write now, years later, divorced and scarred, in an English class with a deadline, about events that had battered her body and soul?
After I finished reading what she had written, I was not the same person. I raised my eyes. She was staring straight at me, to see what I thought. A stream of tears poured from her right eye, and moisture was building at her left eye. Her glasses were fogging from the tears. She’d begun to perspire. She was terrified about how I’d react.
“This is incredible. Not only is this the beginning of a remarkable autobiography, but you are remarkable for writing the truth, and for coming through to this point,” I said.
“Really?” she asked.
“Yes. Let’s work on it, okay?”
I pulled my MacBook over to her area. Now we both were behind her desktop computer. But she was no longer cowering. A wall had been demolished. I was not a threat. I was not a mean condemning man in her life. I was just her English teacher, and wanted to help.
We began reworking her autobiography. We did not erase her painful past, with all its horrific accuracy, from her autobiography. Initially, I had walked back to her in order to help her with written expression. I’d come to aid with mechanics, with subject–verb agreement, with diction. But life’s bruises intruded. Platitudes gave way to tears. She cried as she typed, and I tried not to look too much, but to encourage her as she pecked out her past on the keyboard, word by word.
We are continuing to work on it. But she’s writing now. The words are coming. She talks to me, too, about her past. I’ve become the old man on the bench at the mall, just by observing her—what she wrote, and what she couldn’t write yet.
There’s a unique humanity in teaching. It is akin to reading the soul’s language. Perhaps it’s not so different from that old man at the mall. He watches. He leans in. When appropriate, he advises.
I learn from my students. No, they’ve not taught me grammar, or love of language and literature; I’ve had those passions for decades. But I continue to learn that people are primary. Many live untouched by one who will attend, who will lean in, who will read what is there, but with compassion. We might find that our sorrows are more easily borne when shared. One of my favorite songwriters, John Brine, writes in “Hello in There”:
Ya know that old tress just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello’
Sometimes it takes a song to remind me. Or perhaps a student who lets me read her current autobiography, and lets me lean in, and help her to form her future one. “Hello in there, hello.”