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The tattered, blue grade book sits in the drawer of my credenza. It’s been years since I’ve opened it. Another life resides there, one that is the ever-diminishing object in the rearview mirror. But then again, such objects are typically larger than they may appear. Inside lie the names of 50 or so students. Some are common: Briggs, Smith, Stewart. Others much less so: Kahwajy, Tsosie, Begay, Tsinaje. They were my students. For 15 weeks three years ago, I taught two sections of English composition at a junior college on the edge of the Navajo Nation. What I was doing there, in a dusty, aggrieved corner of New Mexico, doesn’t really matter, except that it was a terrific place for a timeout. How many Washingtonians sit at their desks or in their cubes, or stare out bus and train windows, and dream of ragged vistas and exploding sunsets? Of air and light, space and time? I had chased those things, and there I had them in abundance. And not much else. Farmington, where the college was situated, was a staggeringly unspectacular place, one known primarily for featuring truck stops for oil tankers. The Rockies were 40 miles to the north; Monument Valley, 100 miles to the west. This was where the desert began. WHY WAS I HERE? They asked. It was the first question after the introductions. Why was I here? For them, Farmington offered little and promised less. And to seek it out (and, by implication, to seek them out) was a sure sign that there was something wrong with me. I let that question linger in the arid air. I didn’t have the answer. This is what I knew: I had never taught writing. And they didn’t care a bit about writing. Other than that, we were soul mates. Let’s stop here for a moment for a disclaimer. If you’re expecting a story styled out of some Edward James Olmos parable, in which I grab a scrum of ne’er-do-wells by the scruff of their necks and transform them into a single-minded academic powerhouse, find yourself a cable movie channel. This tale doesn’t tidy up that neatly. The school itself, San Juan College, was a surprise. It was a modern campus situated among the mesas and rocks of northwest New Mexico. It had been established to serve a largely rural, largely low-income community hundreds of miles away from other public institutions. Its faculty, at least in its English department, were idealistic and committed to bringing higher education and the outside world to their corner of the country. Basic English comp was part of the freshman curriculum. And almost no one came to study English. They were there for job skills. Early on I asked about career goals, about their aspirations. Health care tech, mechanic, travel agent were some of the replies. Few expected to ever live beyond Farmington. Most of them worked at night so they could go to school during the day. Many traveled more than 50 miles across the desert every day to the college. The class was divided between Native Americans and white blue-collar kids. No one wanted to be John Steinbeck or even a beat reporter for the Farmington Daily Times. Nobody wanted to write and almost no one wanted to read. I had to convince them that writing mattered. And in doing so, I had to decide why it mattered for me. I had decamped to the rural West to find similar answers. I thought I was pursuing a sort of purity, the classic (and clich�d) literary experience, pursuing the ghosts of Edward Abbey and Willa Cather and everyone who had integrated the American West into his soul. I wanted solitude, and to drink and fight and write and cry and leave the cluttered, pragmatic, workaday world behind in favor of a higher calling. That, of course, was nonsense. The high desert, in its unforgiving manner, resolutely turned that sort of romantic claptrap on its head. I was working part time, making $450 every two weeks, which barely paid for the gas to drive to the campus. My novel was frozen in its third chapter. Instead, I was faced with the more honest, and more real, task of telling my students why they should care one whit whether they could string words together effectively. In a way, it was a microcosm of a larger debate being played out across the world — with e-mail, IMing, text messaging, and cell phones, do written words make a difference? But more than that, here it felt as if writing was a luxury, an indulgence reserved for those who lacked more pressing things with which to concern themselves. So the first thing I did, out of reflex, was resort to platitudes. I was an ex-lawyer. I was a former Washington journalist. I spoke the language of the bureaucracy. I told them that in whatever their chosen career, they would help themselves if they could communicate clearly, write a good report, toss off a coherent letter. That would lead to promotions, to more money, a better life. Naturally. I’m not certain any of them bought it, and I was right in line behind them. After that halfhearted effort, there was only the artillery of the syllabus to bring to bear. Four unit papers would be the bulk of their grade. No tests. A few pop quizzes. But mainly it was: Put it on the page or put it in gear and go home. More than a few took me up on the threat. The drop-outs began. Smart, attentive kids suddenly stopped showing up. I was told the pattern was predictable. They would miss two or three classes, show up one day and talk of being sick or of day-care or work problems, and beg for another chance to make good. And then you would never see them again. I quickly got a sense of the hand I had been dealt. The early exercises weren’t encouraging. Words and phrases jammed together like a bunch of Tinkertoys that didn’t build anything. Full sentences were elusive. Spelling was dreadful. You could rewrite almost every line of some of them and you wouldn’t be much better off than when you began. There were afternoons when, after my last class, I would climb into my car, drive out to the mesas, and sit there among the pinyon trees and sagebrush, watch the hot wind rearrange the dirt, and wonder what exactly was going to become of me. I had relocated to Hell’s Half Acre. My students had me dead-on cold. Why was I here, anyway? The land had humbled greater people than me. All my schooling and talent and arrogance translated here into something close to nothing. Their first major assignment involved writing something about their lives, something from their personal experiences. I deliberately made the task open-ended. It could be a story from when they were a child. Or they could write about a relative, or a dog, or a favorite band. Just get it down, I implored, and, please have a point. This was the paper I thought we would have the easiest time with. Still, I was met with an odd form of resistance and a touch of apprehension. What should we say, I was asked. What do you mean, write about ourselves? About what? What’s the right way and wrong way to do it? It was as if no one had ever allowed them the freedom to chronicle their life and times. Even more than that, it was as if that had never occurred to them. I flashed back to my first teenage journal, the hurt and the ambition and the hunger spilling onto page after page. It was an opportunity I had taken for granted. Here, though, things were different. I tried to make sense of the reasons and kept returning to the idea of personal expression as an indulgence, as something left only for those who believed they were entitled to it. Their papers confirmed my suspicions. More than anything, their common attribute was tragedy. In some, it announced itself immediately. The brother killed in the car accident. The mother with cancer. In others, it lingered in the shadows, a thread that was picked up and dropped. The father in jail. The lack of a permanent home. The boyfriend who left the girl to have the child on her own. Domestic violence, alcoholism, DUIs, car accidents, pregnancies, bad jobs, no money. My Native American students, in particular, wrote in a manner that I couldn’t duplicate now if I tried. Their narratives were splintered in time, frequently traversing the span of 10 or 20 years in the space of two sentences. An event that occurred when they were five would be paired with another occurrence from days ago. They detailed their lives in an almost circular fashion, with few markers left for outsiders to orient themselves. Structure — at least Western structure — was anathema to them. The effect was more than creating a timeless narrative. It suggested that every significant event in their lives all met at the same intersection point, in the manner that all our troubles and low moments make us who we are today. The need and the want radiated from almost every paper. It took grit to let loose their secrets, but I saw — and I hope they did too — a reward in that. They had indeed gotten a lot of it down, and it seems that once they were there, the events of their histories lost some of their venom. They took a breath and said, in various ways, I’m still here. A cure-all? No. Better than yesterday? Absolutely. With no help from me, my students had answered the central question of the course. For them, writing was a piece of equipment to help them get a handle on the punishment that their lives had dealt. Maybe putting it down didn’t make it any more real — it was all too real — but it rendered the vicissitudes of their lives in starker relief. It made them graspable. WINDOW TO THE TRUTH Writing gives us a chance to harness the chaos of our feelings. Putting the right words on the page isn’t about empowerment or career advancement or what makes a good theme paper, or anything so pedestrian and ridiculous. Writing, if we do it enough, if we allow ourselves the indulgence, can open a window to the truth about ourselves. In answering that basic question of the course, my students had exposed the rest of it for what it was: an exercise in rigid formalism that would continue to mean little to them. I decided I would dedicate myself to simply making their remaining papers of passing quality. I would ignore the textbook and the required readings and instead coach as many of them individually to get through as I could. Most of my students made it through the course, but many of the Native Americans continued to struggle with the structure the class required, and some of them failed the course. Almost no one received an A. The grades mattered, of course. But I like to think that even if many of my students struggled with the fundamentals, they still found value — even hope — in reaching down and digging up bones, whatever the form. And that would be it for me. This would be my only semester of teaching. I was returning to the relative safety and predictability of full-time journalism. I would go down to Santa Fe and eventually return to Washington. My students weren’t surprised, but they took the news harder than I expected. It seems that in publicly groping for answers, I had revealed myself to be more like them than they had thought. I had torn down the wall between professor and student. But now I was just another person who was leaving them behind just as they were beginning to trust. Just last week, now long back in Washington, firmly embedded in the comfort of the familiar, my wife and I were talking about those days in New Mexico. “You never liked the desert,” she told me. I denied it, but not too loudly. “It scared you,” she said with finality. She didn’t have to say why. The desert is a vast, lonely, humbling place. Kind of like a completely blank page.
James Oliphant is editor in chief at Legal Times . He can be contacted at [email protected].

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