Monday, March 24, 2014

Dear Dr. Cook

Dr. Cook -

What do you mean? I don’t believe it. This can’t be right.

Confusion. Disbelief. Emptiness.

These thoughts and feelings rushed through me when I was told about your sudden and tragic passing.

As the numbness sank in my heart, my fear of not showing gratitude toward the people I love rose up.

Does she know that I go back to my Practicum notebook to read her inspirational one-liners? Does she know that I gained amazing friends from my student teaching experience? Does she know her kind words on my own writing now inspire kind words on my students’ writing...especially when I am at the bottom of a towering stack of papers?

I knew I needed to honor what I learned from you and not waste another moment keeping my feelings of gratitude to myself. So, I “assumed the power to do what I know” (a favorite quote you shared with us) and decided that my students and I would write letters to the people we appreciate in our lives.

At first, I wasn’t sure whether I should tell the students about what prompted this activity. I worried about the tears that might fall as I stood in front of them and shared my memory of you, but another favorite professor reminded me that I could make this a teachable moment. By sharing this mournful experience, I was showing them a real way to handle grief. I explained that writing through pain may not be everyone’s go-to method and that’s okay. What was important was trying out the process and using writing as a way to connect with other people. In true Writing Project style, we began with brainstorming and drafting, and worked our way from sharing just a few words on the first day all the way to entire letters by the end of the week.

Then, on Friday, since I wasn’t grading the students’ letters (many of them requested privacy since they were writing about such personal topics), I had the students write letters of reflection to me. From the total silence during writing time (which is usually a rarity) to the requests for more time to share with the whole class, I had the sense that most of the students enjoyed the process. However, I wanted to see for myself what they were taking away from the experience. As I read through these letters to me, I noticed a few patterns.

Some students recognized the process and the difference that audience makes:
-“To be honest, writing a letter to someone directly makes writing so much easier.”
-“I think it was hard to think of things to write but I realized it comes from the heart.”

Some students recognized the power of writing for their own lives:
-“I especially loved the purpose of this. They really help you to become more appreciative.”
-“Writing that letter to my best friend was a really healthy process for me.”
-“In a way I felt relieved.”

Some students underestimated their future potential:
-“I do not plan to write any more letters because I am not that nice of a person.”

But most importantly, so many students were thinking about the other person’s reaction:
-“We got to make other people smile and we got to express ourselves.”
-“My friends always joke that I don’t have a heart or that I’m soul-less. And well that’s because sad things or happy things don’t really affect me. I like how it was to show someone you appreciate them. I hope that my recipient will be happy and excited to read my letter.”
-“The way my mom reacted was giving me a nice big hug and it almost seemed like she got a little teary eyed.”
-“I liked it because people don’t always know how you feel about them and it cheers them up when you remind them.”
-“To me the thing I enjoyed the most while writing it was the thought of the person receiving it being happy.”

Honestly, my main objective was for my students to feel better about something in their own life, but they clearly exceeded those expectations with the empathy they showed for others. This empathy - the ability to recognize the emotions of another person - was your hallmark. You listened and validated. You comforted and encouraged. You were a caretaker of the human spirit.

A friend and I reminisced about how we would wait to talk to you after class, even if we didn’t have anything significant to say, just to feel heard and have you  say our names.

For this you will be truly missed.

Thank you for the life you breathed into me and my students.