Writers Respond: Amy Wallen

We asked writer Amy Wallen to write about her recent experience teaching a PITC creative writing workshop at Ocean Discovery Institute in San Diego. Amy has been a PEN In The Community (PITC) teaching artist for ten years. PEN In The Community connects students and community members with professional writers who help participants transform their life stories into poetry, fiction, or memoir.  Since 1996, PEN in the Community has served over 10,000 participants. This program remains the starting point for many students and community members to engage with creative writing and the arts.  At Ocean Discovery Institute, Amy works with young people from underserved urban communities in San Diego to transform their lives, their community, and our world as they become scientific and conservation leaders. To learn more about Ocean Discovery, please visit: http://oceandiscoveryinstitute.org

The Chair

As the workshop started, an empty chair sat at the corner of our pushed-together tables. I had never tried this before, telling the students a chair would remain empty throughout the semester, a symbol championed by PEN International and introduced to me by PEN Center USA. I’ve been teaching these PEN In The Community (PITC) creative writing workshops for 10 years. PITC provides underserved kids with a chance to learn personal essay writing and to eventually publish an anthology of their essays.

I said, “The chair represents those people who don’t have a voice. Who can’t speak for themselves because they are silenced by their government, their family, their community, or maybe even by death.”

In return, I received the blank stares I have become used to on any first day of class. I knew that the kids may not have fully understood this heavy concept, not that first day, but I hoped that throughout the semester—as they learned to write their personal stories—they would develop a sense of what it means to have a voice, to be able to speak freely, and to express themselves openly.

I told the kids they could pick who, symbolically, would be chosen to sit in the chair at the end of the semester. It could be someone from society, someone from the news, someone from their community.

“Anyone,” I said, “who you feel has been silenced unnecessarily. Keep in mind someone who has not been able to tell their story.”

Again, blank stares.

I was hoping they would come up with someone locally in San Diego who had made a mark on them. Their community was rife with people who had been silenced. Year after year, I’d heard of gang shootings on the streets outside, of fathers who were imprisoned without a trial, neighbors who had been murdered by another neighbor, kids who found a gun in the backyard and kept it secret for fear of getting anyone in trouble, and on and on.

As the school year continued on, the chair came to mean something to the kids. If someone forgot and put a purse, stacked books, or hung a jacket on the chair, I’d say, “Hey, someone’s sitting in that chair!” They’d laugh, take their belongings, and make sure the chair remained sacred. 

Before I taught PEN In The Community workshops, I volunteered for Ocean Discovery Institute, which provides an after school program for science and engineering. This marine biology program takes the students to Baja California Sur, Mexico along the Sea of Cortez for five weeks each summer where they take on science research projects, swim with whale sharks, and build self-esteem. Many of them, despite living in San Diego, California, have never been to the ocean nor know how to swim—thus, the swimming lessons before and after the writing workshop. Originally, I’d meet with them for a week, after they returned, to help them write their Baja trip reflections.

As a member of PEN Center USA, I knew about PITC and thought a collaboration would benefit both organizations. The result turned out to be even more successful for the students than I imagined. I could teach personal essay writing before they went to Baja, they could use the skills on the trip, and wrap up their essays for the published anthology upon their return. 

I call them kids, but they are really closer to adulthood than many adults I know. Between the ages of 15 and 18, these students live now in the inner city, but many recently arrived as refugees from war-torn countries. Several are just learning English. For ten weeks each spring after their Tuesday swim lessons, we push together tables and I give them prompts to help trigger essay ideas. We have fun, but I try to bring in some of the science and nature that they are also learning at the same time.

This year I had two young women from the Congo in the workshop. Both had attitude—that kind of attitude that I had become familiar with enough over the years to recognize as a way to hide their fears.
We started each day with Natalie Goldberg’s Rules for Writing, a list of sort of anti-rules for writers to get their pens to the page and their imaginations in drive.

“Do you want to read the next rule, Merveille?” I asked, as we went around the table taking turns.

“No.” Merveille had a proud smirk across her face. 

“Why don’t you anyway,” I replied.

“You asked if I wanted to,” she said.

“I didn’t mean it,” I told her. “It’s a polite way of giving a command. Now go ahead.”

I probably was being unfair since they both were just learning English, but she had read the one sentence fine.

The rest of the year went like that. They tried to get my goat, and I tried to make them laugh. These girls were tough. They were resistant to putting their souls on the page. Vulnerability was not going to come easy to them.

The first fear I learned about was their fear of water. Both girls came up with every possible excuse as to why they couldn’t go to their swim lesson. First, their hair was too big to fit in the swim caps. They had big beautiful cornrows and long braids down their backs. The Ocean Discovery staff found larger swim caps the next week. That week they reported that the chlorine had made them sick and they couldn’t swim.

I smiled. I knew this fear firsthand. I had been afraid of swimming since I was five years old and my swim teacher held my head under water. When I turned 50, I gifted myself swim lessons. One of my friends had sent me a New York Times video of an African American man in his thirties who also was afraid of swimming and took it upon himself to learn so he could join his friends at the beach. Like me, he’d been making excuses for years as to why he would sit by the water and watch everyone else’s belongings while they had fun.

The next week I shared my fear with the kids, told them that I had learned to swim late in life, and showed them the video. The video appeared too dim in the sunny room, we really couldn’t hear it from my laptop speakers, and only one of the two young women—Ndekey—showed up. And since she was still claiming that the water made her stomach upset, she didn’t go to swim lessons. Merveille didn’t show up at all. I had been certain my agenda would instill a breakthrough, a camaraderie, and inspire both girls to try swimming. After the video, I gave all the kids a prompt—what are you afraid of? Some kids wrote about their fear of spiders, the zombie apocalypse, and losing at soccer. Ndekey wrote a story, maybe to please me, about being afraid to swim because her uncle had made her swim in a lake in the Congo.

Eventually, Merveille and Ndekey took swimming lessons. A previous year’s Congo refugee student had explained to them how important swimming would be to their experience in Baja. They would need it to swim with whale sharks.

They left for Baja at the beginning of June, and I didn’t see them again until August when they returned. We had one final essay to write for the anthology and that was the reflection of their time in Mexico. All of them were fitter and more confident, and had bonded because of this intense experience.

I’m always a little jealous of their time in Baja without me. I wish I could experience what they do, even for a few days, and I have to admit, I don’t like relinquishing my position as their creative writing teacher. I’m always afraid they will come back and their writing skills will be diminished. They will return to worrying too much about grammar and syntax and not enough about heart. Every year I worry for nothing and continue to learn that all I can really do is give them a pen and paper.

This year, Merveille returned and opened her essay with a story her mom had shared with her. It told about bombs and fires and the Congo rebels coming to their house when she was a toddler, and about her family running for their lives across many miles to a refugee camp. She told of coming to the United States and not knowing the language. She told about being in Baja, feeling so alone, then finding her courage through the shared friendship with her colleagues. Merveille was selected to read on stage at the public reading held after the anthology’s publication. The audience was made up of about 300 people including parents and teachers, but also world famous scientists from the San Diego community who support the marine biology program. Merveille received a standing ovation.

Like Merveille, Ndekey shared a story of a different kind of rebel attack. She was not a toddler, but a little girl. When the rebels came to her house, they shot and killed her father. Her older brother sent her to the back of the house to keep an eye on their little sister and baby brother, while he and their older sister tried to rescue their mom who had rushed out to their dying father. But her mother’s screams brought Ndekey to the front window. She watched her mother tortured, both “physically and mentally,” she wrote. I read between the lines, knowing what the rebels did to punish captured women.

Ndekey and her older brother and sister had to get help for their mother. Eventually, they too made the long march across the Congo to a refugee camp. When I edited this portion of her story, I noticed a discrepancy in number of siblings. “At the beginning, you write of five children at home, but only three of you and your mother walked to the camp.” I asked, puzzled. “My younger sister was kidnapped by the rebels,” Ndekey said. “And your little brother?” My throat tightened. “We don’t know, but when I went to the window to see about my Mom, we think he wandered off. I was supposed to be watching him.” She looked at me, then looked down at her lap, then back at me. Could I have told someone that, I thought? I didn’t think I could.

Ndekey didn’t present her story at the first public reading. Merveille got the spotlight, but something told me that Ndekey needed to share her story with a bigger, not audience perhaps, but world. Sometimes, it isn’t just about being silenced. It’s about not being heard.

I thought of Ndekey’s siblings, the two that would never have a voice.

We had one last wrap-up workshop, so we went on a nature hike. I loaded up my car with books, pens, and paper. I put a folding chair in my trunk. I’d almost forgotten we hadn’t named the person who should sit in the chair.

The kids met me at the beach and we hiked the cliffs, then unfolded the chair at the top.

I asked the students if they had figured out who should get the seat.

More stares.

“If you don’t mind,” I said, “I have someone I would like to choose.”

“Yes, yes!” they all said, relieved they wouldn’t have to come up with an answer.

I chose Ndekey. I told the kids that Ndekey represents each of you, everyone in your families, anyone who does not have a voice. The kids all looked at me, this time, no blank stares. This time they nodded.

Ndekey read her story aloud, the Pacific behind her while her classmates heard every word. As immigrants, they understood her courage. Afterward, they all swam in the ocean, while I sat on the beach and watched their belongings.

Amy Wallen, is a novelist and Associate Director of the New York State Summer Writers’ Institute. Her essays have been published in The Gettysburg Review, The Normal School, Country Living, The Writers’ Chronicle and other national magazines. Her memoir will be released in Spring 2018.