I Didn’t Know

“I didn’t know,” are the saddest words I’ve ever thought or said, and I’ve thought them more times than I like to think about. I was reminded of that tonight as I was (finally) reading the “books” of my creative writing students. They contract for grades based on total content versus quality, which allows for differences in aesthetic values and also allows me to defer reading to more convenient times. Tonight, I read Michaela’s book.

Michaela is a lovely, spirited, charming, young woman, a slight person with a big personality. She may have never missed a day of class, and she contributed energetically to everything we did. Her poetry was inspired, some of our favorites, and her consistency became something we all counted on: she was always there and always prepared.

As I started reading her short story titled “Ears Shaped Like Kites,” I found the tears at the ready. About a childhood dog who dies, it resonated with me from the very first sentence until the last in a way that grabbed my soul and tightened relentlessly. I could neither put it down nor control the tears; at the end, she wrote:

I crouched on the shower floor and wailed ugly sobs for what must have been an hour. I’ve never cried that way before. I must have sounded like a dying animal. Ironic. Everything that had built up the past few days came crashing down like an undertow in the sea after a thunderstorm. Everything came out in a hideous melody. The sound of mourning isn’t a very pretty song.

Right? The last two sentences just seemed perfect to me. She knew how I felt, not only when my dog died, but when my love died, when my other dogs left, when the disappointments in my life suddenly slapped me in the face. It wasn’t pretty.

It was the preface to her book that really got me and inspired this post. She wrote:

…this past semester has opened up a new door for me. My writing instructor Karen has been an absolute joy and the major supportive force in this. The excitement and ease that I have when writing now makes me feel like I’m 8 years old again, and I’m very grateful for that. Words are powerful, and I’m glad they’re back in my life.

So, that was what set my nerves at the ready and when I read the story prompted a vast supply of tears, but the thing that touched me the most about those words was that “I didn’t know.”

I worked with Michaela for four months, and during that time, we lost a classmate to a car accident, so we were a close group, but I didn’t know. Until our last day of class, when she lingered after class with a Christmas gift (including homemade puppy chow) and told me how much she enjoyed the class and appreciated me, I didn’t realize how I had touched her life and, maybe, how she would touch mine.

Then I thought about my course evaluations, from all my classes, and the inevitable evaluations that judge my performance poorly. I remember the words of one student who said she felt left out, that she wasn’t one of the “favored” students, and my reaction was “I didn’t know.”

At the beginning of a new semester while reflecting on the previous one, I can’t help but feel kind of helpless; in these two examples, someone spoke up, someone told me the truth. I can’t help but wonder how many other times I didn’t know.

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