By Dr. Rita Nezami
I teach in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University. On my first day of class in Fall 2008, she walked into the classroom, a frail-looking girl with tinkling anklets. Her eyes shone with intelligence and energy, yet, I sensed she was in pain.
Soon enough, she proved the strength of her critical thinking and writing skills. She started coming to office hours, and we commenced what turned into frequent, long discussions. Eventually, she revealed the excruciating pain she endured every night from the scoliosis brace she wore. It felt like a suffocating cage. Her suffering affected me deeply. Despite her daily pain, she leapt into class discussions and diligently wrote her essays. The university president recognized her academic excellence, and I was by her side, along with her parents, when she received the award.
On the last day of class that semester, I invited students to read aloud their personal essays or their argumentative research papers on urgent global issues. Her hand went up first. As she read, a pin-drop silence descended on the room; it was as though we feared even an audible breath would break the spell cast by the words she used to tell of her struggle with the scoliosis she had wrestled with since infancy.
A few semesters later, she came back to my Honors College class to take my Global Issues and World Literature course. By then, her brace was history and she was poised to take her Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Today, she is a doctor with a personal knowledge of pain that many physicians may never have experienced. She can deeply connect with her patients who speak of their distress. She understands not just the cause of their pain, but what it means to endure it. She graduated eight years ago, but we remain in touch through Facebook.
A few semesters ago on a Tuesday I walked into the computer lab to find one of my students deep into his writing. I knew his mother was suffering from cancer. I began lecturing, but he remained immersed in the words on his screen. Usually, I looked forward to his smile, but, that afternoon, it wasn’t happening. At the end of the class, my student rushed out. I asked his friend if there was a problem.
“His mother died last night.”
My head spun, and my chest tightened. For weeks before this terrible day, the young man visited me often during office hours. He shared his pain, fear, and the love and devotion he felt for his mother. After school, he kept a vigil at his mother’s bedside. He spoke to her words of comfort, strength, and courage. He told me that life would become impossible were his mother to lose her battle.
On Thursday, he returned. Again, he averted his gaze. After class, I invited him to my office. Sitting quietly, his head bent, his shoulders drooped, he finally looked up. I asked, “Where did you find the strength to attend the class the day after your mom passed away?” His eyes filled with tears and pride. “This is what my mom would have wanted.”
It was an icy January day. My nervous Intermediate Writing students knew me less than 20 minutes when I asked them to write a diagnostic essay about the most memorable day in their lives. One young man sat rigidly staring at his blank screen. I quietly asked if he was okay.
“I have writer’s block.”
I slipped an essay in front of him and asked him to just read and not worry about writing. I walked around the room as keyboards clicked to find him typing away. The reading sparked thoughts that now poured from fingers that only moments earlier were not even close to putting words on the page.
His writing was fluent through the rest of the semester. But, deep into Spring and working on a personal essay, he was struggling again. Still, he managed an initial draft. I read the first sentence.
“I chose a red dress and went to the fitting room to try it on.”
It took writing a personal essay for this young person to share that she was struggling with her gender identity, going to university, and raising her two-year-old daughter. In conference, she shared with me that the writing itself was part of the process of coming to terms with who she was and who she was becoming. We often forget that it is just as true for students as it is for us: we learn what we think, how we feel, what it’s really like to be human, by writing about it.
Walking to my car that mild evening, the pink magnolias coming into full blossom, I tried to process what I’d witnessed. It became clear what a privilege it was to quietly observe this most intimate of processes, the creation of a human identity, unfolding in the life of one of my students.
“Faggot, fairy, bitch!”
The words are those of a freshman writing about the names that kids threw at him in high school. “I wondered how my peers could be so cruel and unforgiving. I didn’t know what I did wrong. I was true to myself. I am who I am.”
Like my trans student who wrote about her evolving identity in light of her gender experience, this young gay man told the world of his true identity by using his personal essay to come out. The days of cringing in silence out of fear when young homophobes taunted him with, “Look at the fairy! He probably doesn’t have a dick!” were brutal, but that was in the past and the world was a safer place now to be fully himself.
It seems such a simple thing: telling the world who you are. But, watch a composition student wrestle with the language essential to tell a long-concealed truth about himself, and it is clearly anything but simple.
In the essay he wrote, “In the kitchen that day [after he was called names], I was looking at the knife and was eerily fascinated by it. Then without hesitation, there was blood on the floor spurting out of my arm.” Self-harm can distract from the hurt of words, and it can hurt less than rejection and humiliation.
High school was sheer torture. But, at the university, he finally started finding himself, his self-confidence, his identity, his sexual orientation. When the time came for the semester’s personal-essay reading series, which I organize at the Humanities Poetry Center, I invited this student to read what had become a beautiful, if painful, piece of writing. It is one thing to put difficult words, especially about oneself, on the page; it’s another to read them to a crowd of strangers.
He looked straight into my eyes and said: “Why not?”
The afternoon of his reading, listeners couldn’t know what was coming. The language was raw, ugly, terrible. The pain palpable. This was not a tame narrative; it told of a difficult rebirth into an authentic self. The Poetry Center was silent; I could feel the empathy and support as it surged in the room.
My student will never forget that day, and neither will many who heard him read. This young man was not the first to find that the personal essay opened a space into which the real self could emerge, and he won’t be the last. But, it’s remarkable every time it happens.
There are places where cancer unsurprisingly stalks the corridors. Infusion centers. Hospital wards. Internists’ waiting rooms. Some may, however, be unsettled that, in my 12 years teaching composition and rhetoric at Stony Brook University, I am inured to cancer’s ominous presence in my classrooms. Students’ parents, siblings, grandparents, friends – the stacks of essays are laced with the sad tales of battles fought and lost and the occasional joyful ones of remission and survival. What I’ll never become inured to, though, is students who, themselves, suffer their bodies turning against them. Theirs are sobering days of shuttling between medical appointments or treatment sessions and their classes.
I met one of these students early one Spring semester when a quiet young man looked so distressed that I could not but gently and privately ask if he felt unwell. The tears came right away. “I hope it’s not going to be a problem,” he said, “but I have to use the restroom every 10 minutes.” Just getting those words out took a toll.
He was living with bladder cancer. In conference, he related that his mother died of cancer the previous year. Now, the struggle had come upon him. I didn’t know which caused him more distress, losing his beloved mom or his own physical pain.
My young cancer patient was still trying to work through his mother’s loss. There was a lot of unprocessed grief, and he patiently peeled back its layers in a personal essay about his mother – who she was, what her example meant to him, her protracted illness, and her eventual death. It was all there. But this was not the familiar tale of woe. My student tackled one part of his grief at a time, wrote through it, explored it, became more intimate than he previously had been with the searing pain. He told me that, through the writing, he found a way to approach and confront a tsunami of emotions that seemed overwhelming. It was the act of clothing the exposed nerve endings of his pain with language – naming the pain, explicating it, tracing it to its deeper sources – that was so therapeutic, so healing. He spoke of finally realizing the power of language to get into and through fear and the monstrosity of bitter loss.
His cancer managed, this sensitive young man went on to take three courses and an independent study with me. I watched as the anxious freshman who was self-conscious of having to continuously leave the classroom to use the bathroom evolved into an intellectual who took his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Stony Brook and went on to study for his doctorate in anthropology at a prestigious university abroad.
I have more than a hundred student-heroes, young people whose lives have been touched by stresses that people don’t associate with college students, who are so often caricatured as partiers who just want to get to the beach. Over and over, I’ve seen maturity, ethical seriousness, and raw courage. An ideal example of these resilient souls is a young woman who was in one of my classes during the pandemic-shattered Spring 2020 semester, a time of harsh realities the dimensions of which most of us were only beginning to understand.
On the first day of class, she wore a gentle smile and bowed when our eyes met. She was like no other student I have met. Her bright eyes were filled with intelligence, kindness, and thoughtfulness. She wrote two excellent essays, one on global issues and the other a personal essay that she used to explore her experience with racism and discrimination.
By early March, the pandemic shuttered the university, and we all quickly learned that Zoom means something other than the sound jets make. My remarkable student showed up on the screen for every online session. Suddenly, though, she vanished. Went dark. No e-mail, nothing.
Finally, after a couple of weeks, her sister got in touch. COVID-19 had caught up with her. I worried as I would about my own child. Her sister continued writing about her condition until my student herself was well enough to type a little. She survived and seemed more concerned about her classmates than herself. She implored me to remind my students to be cautious, to wear masks, and socially distance. She didn’t want anyone to go through her experience.
As the semester ended, my student needed to come up with one more major paper to pass the course. This was crucial: she was graduating, and the credit was essential. Yet she lay ill in bed as the clock ticked down. Her sister wrote again, “My sister wishes to complete the semester with good grades, but I am afraid that may be difficult for her.”
In the last hours of the term, her paper arrived. She wrote it in her bed despite extreme fatigue. That work, like her earlier writing, was imbued with humanity and generosity. She wrote to me, “Yes, we will survive! I hope I can see you in person one last time before I leave for Korea in July.
She graduated having performed brilliantly, not just in my course, but throughout university, and left for her home in Korea. She wrote her final essay, a textual analysis of several short stories. Before leaving, she wrote to me:
“The COVID-19 has locked down much of the world. We have remained strong. We have sought solace from spending time with family. We started baking. We discovered new hobbies. Best of all, we picked up a book that we had promised to read years ago.
Literature has taught me to see those we cannot see. Those who have lost loved ones and those who live in solitude. They lurk among us. And for them, loneliness is their sole companion. They seek the solace of watching others from their windows during day; at night they find refuge in their devices. Isolated from fellow humans, they become weak; they are tempted by their own hopes and nightmares.”
It is our students who make teaching such a rewarding experience. Students like these give us a chance to learn something that we can’t find in our books – the great heart, courage, patience, and resilience that is the province of youth. When I’m asked about my heroes, the answer is easy: my students.