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Prewriting: The moment that changes everything

I can create my own prompt from all the old essays in front of me, spread across the floor as elements in the universe must eventually move apart. “Write about who you are as a teacher. Define teaching and your objectives. Be sure to include something new or something you have refined about your learning.” The prompt gives a choice. My cursor blinks beneath it. I am glad the prompt gives me a choice. This is something elusive and often illusionary for teachers. It is an interesting proposition, returning to self or to learning. It is my proposition for us all. As a teacher we are asked to bring in the histories of others as background, but we can only start where we are and with which we are aware enough to recognize. We can then write the story to where we want it to be. Still when I was asked to reflect upon a moment when everything changed, I found that I did not write about teaching at all, but the worry that I had something within me worth teaching.

I remember sitting on Oscar’s front step in Guatemala, holding his daughter after her first birthday party. I was dressed in traditional dress, a backstrap woven guipil in bright blue with multicolored figures embroidered in horizontal rows. I was feeling the elegance of fitting in to a standard feminine definition, and really, just fitting in. This is something that in Guatemala I had struggled with more often than I realized I would. It had been obvious to me that culturally I would have to make concessions or see aspects I assumed in myself challenged in someone else’s mirror. After being the “other” as a teacher in a bilingual classroom, this very act of not fitting in, was the reason I had selected Peace Corps in the first place. But, gender was different.

In my American life, growing up in a house with my father and my brother, it was easy and acceptable to ignore girly attributions, and through their attention and positive recognition of my low spending on clothes or quick shower speed, to not care about what I might be missing in order to have conversations in common. I bounced Oscar’s daughter in my arms, and Galy laughed. I asked Oscar if during the traditional first sauna bath he had hit a pencil on a notebook, an echo of the tools he hoped she would someday use, as he had done with his sons. The tamascal is a traditionally clay structure, so low that you have to almost duck walk to enter. They are unbearably hot and they are also the remedy for illness, postpartum recovery and general well-being. Even the poorest families today still allocate a space on their small land holdings to construct this bathhouse. I was generally uninterested in them for my own use, but more fascinated by them as cultural storytelling.

“Yes,” he replied to my question, but his sisters had held pieces of a loom as well, because of course, she would also use women’s tools. I do not remember quite how I said it, but in some assembly of words, I think even somewhat mumbled, I offered that I could teach her something too. “What?” was the question. I paused, because I was surprised to have said this. Quickly I asked myself, “What? Did this statement escape, because I was simply accustomed in all the educational, academic work I was doing to assume I had answers to offer? Who was talking? Me? Or my taught arrogance by a program that often reminded how much of a gift my American presence was in each community? What could I teach that is different or missing? That is unique or enriching?” I could feel my face get red. “Why did I not have an answer? Was I struggling because I really had no skills or because the relativity of the values of those skills had truly not come to my attention until now?” I was embarrassed, because this was not my first month in Guatemala. I completed Peace Corps service earlier, and returned to work at an international school for a year in order to begin community library programming. This village had provided me with friendships that I wanted to convince, mattered. Somehow returning, did this.

I began to list in my head, Galy’s future. Her father will teach her to study. This is what I know best, but she does not need this from me. I cannot teach her to wash clothes, cook, nor any of the traditionally binding women’s responsibilities. No one taught me those things, and I am barely teaching myself. What is unique about my being, about being a woman from a self labelled developed country like the United States? What defines my sociocultural womanhood status? I had no answer. I gave no answer. I found myself fighting, against who I am unsure. I found myself thinking about things I don’t know. I want to have an answer to my own question, not for Galy, but for myself. Rewriting my histories seems to be the only way to do this.

Still, we must respect the writing process together. Prewriting, remember, reading or an experience. Mine could read something like this. In fact in my academic papers it has. I click to one of many in a folder. They are aged between 6 months and 15 years. As I click through, it is the newer that are the saddest of the group. I often cut and paste between works. I am my largest plagiarist, because “what does it matter?” I think if the words are already mine. They can work more than once. Is there something here I can use? Might the page not be as blank as I think?

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