Memoirs Are Made of This

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Like nearly every other educator in the country, I spent March 2020 in a state of constant re-evaluation. Syllabi, coursework and assignments that had been painstakingly plotted well in advance went out the window, and the new goal was to “make it work somehow.”

As I write this at the conclusion of my college’s spring semester, I’ve seen or heard some version of the two sentences that appear above almost every day since — in news stories, on message boards, on social media posts and in the increasingly vivid periods of lucid hallucination that dot my quarantine days. Those sentiments speak to a need we’re all feeling right now somehow to mark history as we’re living it, whether through diary keeping, Instagram stories, video podcasts, whatever. The trauma and upheaval that have accompanied our role as educators during this time, because we’ve been trained to value critical thought, also prod us to look for lessons and takeaways from the moment.

But life has been busy. And weird. And everything has taken twice as long as it would otherwise, and every day is a game of ciphering puzzles to accomplish what were before the most mundane tasks. Making a proper record of this time could easily fall by the wayside as a nice goal but one for which there’s no time.

That’s a shame, particularly since I spend a good portion of my freshman literature class focusing on the purpose and power of memoirs and diaries. Upon return from spring break a few months ago, I was preparing the class’s final project instructions for a research paper on Holocaust memoirs when all our lives were upended. Re-evaluation time.

I decided to revise my intended final project. Some library resources would no longer be accessible, and even the electronic ones would unfairly tax students returning to rural areas with limited internet access. But there was an additional reason: here was the perfect, organic opportunity to give these students the time and purpose to reflect on and appreciate the history they’re living.

This is the third time in my own life I find myself in a moment that has such significance. The last time, Sept. 11, 2001, I was my students’ age, and while I have a very clear memory of nearly every hour of that day, I made no written record. The time before that won’t resonate with most Americans, but I was a Trinidadian child who experienced the government being overthrown by armed militia in a coup d’état in 1990. My family was actually living on the island of St. Lucia at the time because of my father’s work, but my sister and I had arrived to spend summer vacation with my granny mere hours before the militants made their move.

A 9-year-old child wouldn’t himself have made a particularly reliable or detailed record of such a time, but I have the next best thing: Granny was an avid diarist. (Living on a fixed income and possessed of a wartime-informed frugal nature, she’d long stopped buying bound journals and used an accountant’s paperback triplicate book to write her entries, sans the carbon paper.)

Granny’s diaries were her effort, as a working-class elderly woman without much education living on a small island, to assert her voice and claim that she mattered to history. When I stayed over, she would proudly read the entries to me at night as she wrote them. They featured accounts not only of the day-to-day political developments but also the mundane periods of routine and nothingness that filled anxious hours. Those brittle paper volumes have been a treasured possession of mine since I inherited them.

In the memoir section of my freshman literature classes, I ask my students always to consider the question of why. Whether we’re analyzing Elie Wiesel’s classic memoir Night, diary entries from Anne Frank or excerpts from well-reviewed recent works, responsible readers and analysts must ask the question of why the diarist or memoirist felt it necessary to communicate their ideas, experiences and emotions.

My COVID-inspired rewrite of the class’s final paper assignment, resulting in 30-odd short memoirs written by mostly college freshmen, thus requires me to do the same.

The Why

In composing the new assignment, I asked students to consider how their particular perspectives would inform the memoirs to be written: How has this situation affected a student at a small liberal arts college? How has this situation affected a college wrestler or lacrosse player? How has this affected a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior? I asked them to think about challenges and moments of hope, however big or small, and on how their own experiences inform or reflect the experiences of those around them. Most important, I asked them to find a reason for writing beyond this simply being an assignment and course requirement.

As I read the submitted memoirs, documenting a four-week period between March and April 2020, many of the reasons that students said they discovered for their writing resonated with and moved me. Among these:

  • They want their disappointment to be understood as valid. Fatalities from the disease are quickly mounting by the tens of thousands, and the grief people are experiencing on that front is heartbreaking. But students are feeling grief in other ways, too, and some express hurt in their memoirs that society had often dismissed those feelings. Not only were seniors robbed of their final weeks of college, but the few of my first-year students intending to transfer colleges never got to say a proper goodbye to some friends, mentors and places. Athletes (accounting for roughly half of my school’s population) saw their seasons cut short, and some had to deal with the crippling disappointment of those seasons dissolving literally minutes before championship matches. These may not be the most significant problems the world is facing, but they are among the most significant problems many students have faced and thus matter greatly in their worlds.
  • They are able to examine their experiences with empathy and sensitivity. Just because students want their disappointment acknowledged, they are not suggesting that their pain needs to take precedence. Most memoirs showed more attention to the pain and suffering of others than of the self. Students who referenced some of the works we read, like Wiesel’s Night, did not make trite or reductive comparisons of their own situations to the Nobel laureate’s harrowing experience but instead looked to his words as a guide for an introspective process.
  • They realize the fragility of human relationships. Much has been said about how our current situation endangers students who considered college a safe haven and were required to return to homes that are less than stable. I see sad confirmation of that reality. But other relationships and home situations have been fraught, too, and for reasons other than cabin fever. Freshman students began a rite of passage last year to separate themselves from their parents, and vice versa. The recalibration of those relationships that would have begun next summer got moved forward abruptly and under extenuating circumstances. The memoirs revealed that even some relationships that were previously solid have been under pressure, and while some families have drawn closer in a moment of crisis, some have suffered.
  • They demand being seen as individuals rather than as a monolithic demographic. Blanket statements get thrown around about risk for COVID-19 as it relates to age. But a number of my students who fall into other high-risk groups believe their health to be imperiled because society sees only their youth.
  • They experience survivor guilt. Those who aren’t particularly at risk for major health complications wrote of feeling fortunate and guilty at the same time. Many said they worried that their own relative health might cause them to endanger more vulnerable friends or family members and find themselves anticipating guilt.
  • They are resilient but not invincible. Some students are experiencing challenges that are staggering in scope, whether relating to health or relationships or financial hardship. But while they stumble often, they are mostly trying to push through. Some, because they’re dealing with a combination of the above factors and more besides, have come very close to not getting up.

I’ve spoken in generalizations here about major takeaways from the memoirs of a few dozen students. These points don’t all apply to any particular student, but they were collectively enlightening to me, and I share them to add to our profession’s record of this moment. The last line of Granny’s diary entry for July 27, 1990, the day the coup d’état attempt broke out, comes to mind: “It’s a hell of a time.”

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