the beginning

Every time I have a new batch of 3rd/4th graders in the classroom, they goggle, fume, or groan at my instructions to re-write their assignments. “I hafta write it AGAIN?!” “Yes, dear,” I coo. “Writing is re-writing.” (Especially when you can’t follow directions to save your little life.)

They act like the first rewrite is cruel and unusual punishment, the second is a global injustice, and the third (heaven help them) is grounds for a nuclear strike. The first “real” writing assignment seems to never end. I’m sure one little boy will be recopying his paper with its original mistakes until an apocalypse saves him.

But then something magical happens. For the mighty few who make it past the first couple assignments, I start to see a change in their face and posture. Their eyes aren’t quite so glassy, their heads no longer loll to the side; instead, I catch them hunched over their work intently, or gazing off into the distance with the crazed look of someone searching for the perfect word.

The first time I witnessed that look I nearly fell out of my seat. I felt like a zoologist who had discovered a new kind of animal. Quietly I observed the changes, not pressing them to finish, giving them extra time to write as needed. I held my breath – was this the beginning of something new?

One little girl has had to work particularly hard on grammar and punctuation but is also one of the most patient students I’ve ever had. A couple weeks ago, in the middle of a creative writing assignment, she looked up at me in concern.

“I’m going to re-write this, right?”

“Of course,” I said.

And to my utter shock, she sighed in relief. “Oh good.” She hunched back over her paper and continued scribbling.

Seeing that change in a child takes my breath away. All writers start somewhere, and it must be in those small moments when the pencil becomes a friend rather than an adversary. On the days when I’d rather grumble than rewrite, I want to think about this student and that look of relief.

I don’t have to rewrite – I get to rewrite.

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