He will write about his mother, a broom handle, a belt, a coat hanger. He will write about his escape route, a six-foot fence, a neighbor's house. He will write about the times that he makes it and the times that he does not. He will write in the present tense using his eight-year-old voice, My fear is a living, wild thing that quivers like my own dog does not.
You will write: The pacing is strong throughout and I'm not sure if this metaphor completely works yet.
She will write about her father, a constant bottle of Jack D in his hand, a cigarette burn on her chest. She will write about how love is imperfect and describe the raised, red circle still alive on the white page of her skin. She will write at the end, I was three and today I wear scarves around my neck. My friends find me fashionable. My father does not apologize. He has never apologized.
You will write: The concrete details are powerful and Is the conclusion as solid as it could be?
Both of them will write on the top of their papers: do not read out loud. And you will not. You will walk into class and you will pass back these small writing assignments. And even though the work is brave [End Page 63] and beautiful, a search for meaning in moments both large and small, you will not hold up their words as examples of "good" creative nonfiction. Instead, you will talk about lyrical essays. You will ask them to focus on an object. See where it leads you and how it can connect to your life. Surprise yourself.
You will think about her scarf, his dog. But you will not look at her neck. You will not lower your eyes when he watches you. You will smile at all of them: do we want music when we write?
But at night—at three a.m. after two glasses of wine make you wake in the dark—your student is eight years old again and you are his neighbor. You open the door, lock it behind him. You pour him tea with milk and sugar, the way your own mother did. You rub the back of his head, near the base where his hair ends and you breathe him in, the way you do with your own sons. You whisper I'm sorry into his shoulder. You pull his pain into your chest.
You become the mother of your student's three-year-old self. You lift her off her father's lap. You buckle her into a car, drive away fast. You leave a wake of booze and burns and you don't stop until it's safe. You turn in your seat. You reach for your daughter. You smooth the hair out of her face, tuck it behind her ear. You press three fingers to your lips, rest them on that cooling circle. You see it is still red, but not yet scarred. You are so lovely, you tell her. You are such a gift to the world.
Still, you cannot sleep, so you compose lists of comments you cannot write. You speak as if your words are your own and not the person's you play in class: Gay is just who you are. You couldn't have stopped him from hurting your mother. You are so much more than the "fat friend." It's rape, even if you're drunk. I thank my God the rope slipped that day. To all of them, you don't write: If only you could see what I see. If only.
But even as your blue ink would like to rise and reach toward the writer, you know the space between you is too wide, the water deep with words that can drown your students' voices. They wade where truth waits, their feet flailing until the past settles and they push off into a new place. It is so tempting to tire early on, to float to the surface, to click Save, and sink...