Headmaster’s Notebook — Voice

I visited a senior English class recently, where the students were gathering feedback on personal essays by reading them aloud. Their teacher had given them a host of potential prompts the day before, all of which had been gathered from various college applications.

One student wrote about the game of soccer, and its impact on him growing up in Africa. Another shared the nuances of being the youngest of three boys. And a third talked about her penchant for cleaning and organizing other people’s closets … but neglecting her own.

These were early drafts, so the pieces lacked polish and focus. But that wasn’t the point. They weren’t expected to be finished products yet. And the peer editing involved lots of broad suggestions about how to refine the pieces. Writing, for me, is a way to help me know what I think. It seemed that these students were on a similar path.

What struck me most, though, was less the content of the pieces (though I was intrigued by the closet-cleaning mania … why would anyone want to clean somebody else’s closet?) but the character of the voices. I could literally hear those students in their writing—the pacing of the language, the vocabulary and syntax, even the tone. No two pieces of writing sounded alike. They were as unique in style and content as the young people who created them.

I didn’t learn to write that way in school. Five paragraph essays, theses, topic sentences, supporting data. That was how I was trained to write. It wasn’t always a genre to which I was well suited. I remember my English teacher my junior year in boarding school returned a paper to me with a grade and this comment, “Ben, you need to stop thinking about rhetorical flamboyance and start thinking about the substance of your arguments.” Ouch.

I did what he said, of course, and made my way okay through high school, college, and graduate study. But I’m not sure my writing ever displayed the distinctive character of those I heard in that Cate English class. I was a History and Literature major. Something clearly took hold.

But I can’t help but feel like these Cate seniors have something of a head start, and that isn’t simply about how they write. Education is a journey of identity, and voice—however it is manifest, including on paper—is an expression of that identity, a product of self-awareness and a celebration of our uniqueness. I was led to believe early on that the value of my writing was entirely dependent on my ability to convince a reader of something. The students I heard in that English class know different.

To the young woman who wrote about the closet fetish, I suggested that there was something missing in her work. I didn’t know why she felt the need she did—either with respect to other people’s closets or in neglect of her own. Maybe that was my own training coming back to me. It was the piece of the puzzle I was missing.

She smiled when she answered. “I’m still figuring that out. That’s why I wrote the piece.”

Good for her. Good for her teacher. And good for Cate. Not that there is always a right answer … but in this particular case that sure seemed to be it. We write to know: ourselves as well as everything else.