I don’t know what else to do but write

I have so much to say on the Ferguson situation right now.

I almost typed “the Mike Brown situation,” and we shouldn’t forget how this started. We shouldn’t forget who lost his life, or his family, or his friends.

I then almost typed “the grand jury decision,” but this is so much bigger than them or their decisions.

This is about the entire community of Ferguson, Missouri.

Really, this is about all of us, which is why I’m here typing now, so I could just call it “our situation.” But here I sit in my warm home, typing on my Macbook, so safe and comfortable and privileged. It is my situation, too, because I am a human being and I choose to make it my situation, but I don’t want to pretend that I’m feeling what the people of Ferguson are feeling today. Their rage, their terror, their sorrow. I understand it — I cry as I type this — but I cannot pretend to feel it with the same intensity.

I have so much to say, but it feels like so little.


Almost 15 years ago, I was in grad school for the first time and, as a side job, I was tutoring college students who’d come from immigrant families, for whom English was their second or third or fourth language, for whom their college experience was a first for anyone they’d grown up with.

I had a lot of fascinating conversations with those students, and they might not have known it then, but I learned far more from them than they ever learned from me.

I remember one day a student came in to practice short essay writing and I could barely get him to put his name on a piece of paper. He kept fidgeting in his chair, tapping his heels and clenching his fists. He broke a pencil and when he got up to sharpen another on the old-fashion wall sharpener, he ground it halfway down before he let go of the crank.

I asked him what was wrong, and he began to rant at me about roommate problems, about teacher problems, about all the assholes who just didn’t understand. I stopped him. I pointed to the paper and I said, “Write it down.”

He said that’s not what we were supposed to be doing, but I told him we weren’t doing what we were supposed to be doing anyway, and he clearly had things to say about this. “So write it down.”

As he wrote, the letters got bigger, wilder on the page, the graphite strokes got thicker. He broke the tip of the pencil but I handed him a pen. He wrote so hard that he tore the paper. I told him to ignore it and keep writing.

He wrote and wrote. The sound of the nib scraping across the desktop, line after line, filled the empty classroom where we sat.

When he finished, he threw the pen on the table — it skittered away — and sat back with his arms crossed, and he growled, “So now what?”

I told him to wad up the paper. He looked at me. I said, “Take it in your fist, crumple it up. Make it as tight as you can make it.”

He squeezed that paper two-fisted, pressing his palms together so hard his shoulders trembled. He turned and kneaded and squashed that ball until it was the size of quarter. The size of a nickel. He tucked it away in one fist and kept squeezing, and he said again, “Now what?”

I told him to throw it away.

He got up, stomped to the trash can, raised his arm, and he didn’t so much throw the paper away as he did punch it into the trash can. It hit so hard it bounced out and he picked it up and punched it in again, and it stayed. He came seething back to the desk. He sat down.

He said, “Now what?”

I asked him how he felt.

He spread his hands forward and out across the table. Flexed his shoulders. Exhaled. He said, “Better, actually.” He sounded surprised.

I said, “Good. Whatever you came in here with, it’s over there in the trash can now. You can pick it up and take it with you when you leave, if you want, but for now, it’s garbage. Now let’s get to work.”

Doing that didn’t solve his problems, by the way. His roommate was still an asshole; he still fought with his teachers. We still had trouble in tutoring. Nobody understood. What I asked him to do, it wasn’t some magic exercise in throwing away his pain. It wasn’t some Zen “letting go” moment. I didn’t even know what I was doing with the kid. I was as lost as he was.

I just didn’t know what else to do but write.

So we wrote.


Tomorrow, I’m going to go into my classrooms and teach. And I can’t not teach this moment in our history. I can’t wad it into a ball and throw it away and move on.

But I don’t know how else to address it but through writing.

So in both my writing classes, I’m going to talk about words, about their power. I’m going to ask my students to write down the most powerful word they know. I’m going to ask them to write down the most dangerous word they know.

I’m going to ask them to write down the most positive word they know.

I’m going to tell them they can do whatever they want with the first two words. But I’m going to ask them to carry the third word with them when they leave the classroom.

And here, in the comments, you’re welcome to play along and leave your three words. Or at least your most positive one.

I could really use your positive words right now, friends.

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9 thoughts on “I don’t know what else to do but write

  1. I think I might try this teaching lesson in my classroom. Fantastic idea. Currently, they are writing an essay about one specific incident in one day that changed their lives in some way. The assignment just started. However, I am already astonished.

    1. I often think that’s my best approach to teaching: being present, with as big a heart as I can bring in that moment. Personally, I am very much concerned with teaching as an act of compassion. It’s a hard thing to maintain and I often fail at it, but I keep trying. 🙂

  2. Am I the only person who is BURNING to know what was on the crumpled paper? Already I’m imagining, as only an author can, that not picking it (later) from the basket, smoothing it out, and reading it, would be like the man dying of thirst in the desert who sees shady trees and a pool, but who crawls away in the opposite direction because he knows it’s a mirage. Only it isn’t! Who knows what ringing prosody, what images such a muse of fire could have prompted that guy to write. Kerouac would have insisted on its standing! Instead what we have here is a man told to reject a whole mode of writing, told that the corpus of words written in moments of pure and honest passion is worthless.

    When we throw something away, we are throwing it OUT of the box that confines us.

    Now Sam, I know you by now, and I know you didn’t mean it to be that way, and I clearly see and appreciate what you were trying to do, and it was subtle and good. Maybe I’m just a compulsive contrarian. 🙂

    1. Indeed, I think you are! 🙂

      I believe that all writing has value, but not all writing is art — often, the greatest value in writing is the act of it, not the product of it. Especially therapeutic writing. But I told him he could take the writing with him if he wanted. Throwing it away was a symbolic act, but it wasn’t a final one. That symbolism was fresh in brain at the time, though, because I was then under the tutelage of a pedagogy professor who taught us to teach our students that one of the greatest values of writing is that it’s repeatable, which means we are always free to throw writing away and write it over again. In fact, sometimes throwing it away and writing again is the best thing we can do.

      But I certainly wasn’t telling that student to reject the MODE of writing — I was just telling him to let go of that particular product of writing. The mode still has value, and is repeatable.

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