Feeling read all over

I must not be getting enough flattery here.  Two weeks ago, I started my own site on my ninth grade students’ new multi-user blogging network, and – you know what? – I get such nice comments.

In person I’m still Mr. S*** the teacher, but online I’m a player. I don’t comment on my students’ blogs because my students may not be ready for their teacher as a subjective reader.  But I blog as Ajax.

My students and I deliberately keep our comments positive.  We have writer support groups where students and I can receive all the criticism we want.  Online, though, I want my guys to experience what I struggled to accept during the three years of my blogging here: specific, unmitigated praise.  My writing has improved in certain ways in three years of blogging, and a comment that poet Sage Cohen left here this past summer helped me understand why:

As a teacher and reader of your blog, I’d much rather enjoy what you write and respond to what inspires and excites me–as this piece has–than edit and critique your work. I trust that as you write more, you’ll find your way to more and more clarity about how to polish your writing to a shine. I think celebrating what’s working in a piece has far greater value in keeping us inspired to write and improve than anything else.

Blog commenters maintain their integrity (and credibility) by selecting an aspect of a post on which to lavish praise.  This specificity is also what gives a comment its worth.  When someone picks something in one of my posts to either compliment or to expand on, I feel read.

Feeling read is one of the best things about writing.  If you ask a writer how she came to see herself as a writer, she will probably tell you a story or two about some of the first times her words got to other people.  Maybe she published a poem in an elementary school anthology.  Maybe a class put on a play she wrote.  One way or another, she felt read.

Site stats already confirm to my students that their blogs command a higher readership than they could probably expect from taping their work onto our classroom walls.  I remind students that anyone on the planet with Internet access can read our posts.  I explain search engine dynamics.  I tell how more words and more time means more hits and more links and maybe more readers.

But not more commenters.  We blog as a gated community.  Everyone can see us, but only my seventy honors students can comment on posts there.  (I have fifty-five other students, but for various reasons it would drain the life out of me to have all of my students blogging.)  The site’s gate keeps out possible predators as well as commenters who may not wish to play by our rules.  But the site’s exclusivity also gives the students another way to experience the writing community that they’ve begun face to face in class.  Internet safety, then, dovetails with my vision of bringing our experience as a writers’ community online.

I hope that people outside the class will be drawn to something fairly unique: a self-contained community of online writers.  I hope also that readers will be drawn to the writing itself.

Of course, there’s no hiding that it’s ninth grade writing.  I don’t want to advertise the writers’ age or make the site look like a school site, though.  How could you feel like a real writer if you were writing on a school site?  You’d feel like you were on training wheels as the “real” Internet streaked by you on those bikes with the skinny, street tires.

I have discovered that high school students don’t go out of their way to write on “school” sites.  According to the results of my written survey, a majority of my current students have a social network page (e.g., My Space or Facebook), a YouTube account, or a blog.  Moving from such user-centered environments to an institution-centered one is comparable to returning to dial-up after a few months of high-speed.  I’m not trying to compete with Facebook, but I’m not going to needlessly repel students, either.

But Ajax is needlessly getting as attached to the site as any of his more enthusiastic students have.  He’s growing addicted to his students’ specific, positive feedback.  Perhaps he has become a king who has surrounded himself with sycophants.

If I really wanted flattery, though, I reckon I’d teach another grade.  Consider the corrosive effect third grade is having on my wife: three months into the year, and she’s living for her kids’ unreserved adoration.  She’ll wear a favorite outfit to school, throw out her arms and say, “Is Mrs. S*** cute, or what?!”  Some boys groan, but the girls smile and nod.  The classroom has become a sickness, a collective mirror, mirror on the wall.

Ninth graders have a fundamentally different relationship with their teachers than third graders do with theirs.  And maybe the kind words – both on this blog and that one – aren’t so needless.  My wife can have her mirror.  I’m allowed a little Ajax.

 



|

The art of the thank-you note

I didn’t know until much later in life that what I believed to be Universal Law was only Cohen Household Law: good deeds are memorialized in writing and mirrored back to the doer. This formalized ritual of written gratitude – the thank-you note – imprinted me with my mother’s vehemence for doing the right thing. As a child, my thank-you boomerangs made me very popular with my friends’ parents who were pleased to see their acts of kindness reflected back through the round, backward-slanting letters of my emphatic lefty gratitude.

At age 13, bent over a list of several hundred names paired with their accompanying Bat Mitzvah gifts, I labored to print a meaningful message into each redundant card imprinted on the front with my purple, metallic name. I remember my mother standing over me, proofreading. For those ambiguous, distant relatives who did not attend my Bat Mitzvah but sent gifts, I figured it would be acceptable to write multiple variations of the same vaguely generic message. My mother saw things differently. Each card, she insisted, was its own dialogue between the person receiving it and me. What, specifically, did I like about the gift? How did I feel about this particular person’s presence or lack of attendance? How could I make each introduction and conclusion personal to that specific person? From the lumpy coals of my junior high vocabulary, we mined thank-you notes so radiant and precise that they could have cut glass.

I hated writing those cards, many of which I had to throw out and start over, and I resented my mother for making me work so hard at them. And yet. In retrospect, I think of my mother as a master composer insisting that her protégé practice scales. Having spent my childhood cultivating those notes, chords and theories, the music of gratitude became as reflexive as my enteric nervous system. Today, I find myself replete with the pleasure of improvisational thankfulness.

For example, I hired Brant to build an arbor around my front door. I drew it exactly as I wanted, and he manifested my vision in physical form. The arbor permanently changed my experience of entering my house; its beauty uplifted me every time I crossed my threshold. Today, climbing roses and ecstatic jasmine cascade their fragrances of welcome from this lofty height of beauty. A few weeks after the arbor was erected, I called Brant. He answered the phone defensively.

“What can I do for you,” he asked, his voice a cold brillo of distance.

“You can say, ‘You’re welcome,’” I responded.

“I don’t understand,” Brant shot back across the wire.

“I am calling to say ‘Thank you.’”

Silence.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“I love my arbor, and I wanted you to know how much I appreciate your work.”

More silence.

“I’ve been doing this work for 20 years, and no one has ever called to thank me for it,” Brant responded. “People only call me when they have problems.” He was incredulous.

I had a similar experience with L.J. at Honda who sold me my car. As a single, adult woman who had never set foot in an auto dealership, I was full of trepidation when I walked through the Thomason Honda doors. L.J. answered my questions, didn’t push, was reasonable and gave me space to think and decide. He completely exceeded my expectations of what a beat-‘em-down car sales experience might be. I wrote him a note letting him know how much I appreciated the respect and spaciousness he provided for me and how happy I was with my car choice.

L.J. called me a few days later. He said that his was the first thank-you note in the history of the dealership. The managers open the mail, and then pass on all acceptable communications to the sales team. Evidently, my note was circulated through the ranks, and as a result, L.J. was mercilessly teased. But I’ll bet that every one of his peers looked at him differently after that.

Encounters like these give me pause. Are we really living in an age where the only feedback loops of closure are complaints? How did we get to a place where we have mutually agreed that what’s worth mentioning is what’s wrong? Possibly, broadcast news has trained us for this. Or therapy. Maybe the legal system. But I’m less interested in what has washed us up on this shore of mutual wonderlessness than I am in floating on my back through the oceanic mystery of appreciation. It seems to me that when our focus is on solving problems, we are most likely to see problems. When our focus is on celebrating goodness, we are likely to tune into what is good.

I think I first stumbled into this concept of intentional goodness when I read Charlotte’s Web as a small child. As you probably know, in this story a message woven into a spider’s web saves a pig’s life. “Special Pig,” as told by Charlotte, changed the way the world experienced Wilbur, while changing the lens through which he saw himself.

I would like to thank Charlotte for teaching me that just one word of appreciation can liberate hope from hopelessness and unlock life from death. And I would like to thank my mother for bringing to my life a discipline of acknowledging what is good. Like Wilbur, through the mirror of language, I have learned to find myself worthy. One note of gratitude at a time, I am claiming a place for myself in this world.

Copyright © 2006 Sage Cohen. Used by permission.