The Memory Book
Summer always takes me back to the summers when I was teaching. On the first day of school for my first senior class, I passed out the grading rubric and requirements for my students' largest senior English project: Memory Books. I'd spent the entire summer thinking of weekly assignments, at the end of which they would turn in a complete binder full of pages about their young lives. It was about the length of a college thesis, but on a topic I thought everyone would enjoy: themselves. What better time to look back at the last seventeen or eighteen years and say, "Wow, look how far I've come."
As you can probably imagine, my students HATED this assignment. Some of them did the work to break out the baby books the first week of class and get the details they needed about their early childhood development. Some gave excuses I hadn't even fathomed when I'd built the assignments.
"Ms. Montreux, I don't have a baby book. Our house burned when I was five."
"Ms. Montreux, I wasn't adopted until I was three. I don't have a record of anything before then."
"Ms. Montreux, my parents aren't really the type to keep records of those things."
I taught at a private school where I assumed everyone had privilege, at least as much privilege as I had growing up. I thought I was helping them develop their first portfolios. I thought this would be an easy topic. I was wrong. For some, it was difficult and painful to try to reform fractured memories. For others, it opened a door to a pretend world where their parents and their peers actually cared about them, a door best left shut.
When it came time to read through and grade the completed books, I chucked my rubric out the window. It didn't matter to me whether or not they'd written fantastic prose about their lives. What I loved was when they tried. Some of them wrote passionate five-page dissertations on how their parents refused to pay for dance or piano lessons so they could afford to pay for Grandma's work visa, or how Hockey was the best thing to happen to our small town (this young lady's research paper was also about hockey). One farm boy nearly bored me to tears by listing the different types of grasses grown to encourage pollinators in our area. He was passionate about saving the dwindling population of bees, something we all should worry about.
I also remember the ones who weren't passionate. Worse, some didn't try. They checked out. They did not want to remember their pasts for fear they were bragging about themselves, or because they already felt like they were failures and this book and its assignments would only exacerbate the burden on their family and friends.
I wonder where those kids are today. All of them, not just the ones who tried. I don't know why they let twenty-two-year-olds teach high school seniors only four years younger than they. I had a ton of growing up to do back then. I had so much to learn about the world and about myself. I can only hope I didn't sour their memories of their senior year by making them write about their memories from the first eighteen. I also hope I didn't sour their memories for the next eighteen by being a horrible teacher.