Friday, November 1, 2013

Diving into the Wreck

By Sara Taber, The Writer's Center Workshop Leader

In 2004, I was so moved by my last class of students that I had to write this. Thank you for this work that gives me such deep amazement and pleasure. Sometimes teaching leaves me breathless, knocks me back. What does the knocking is my students’ fearlessness, their willingness to go for broke, to plunge into murky waters - into danger.

When I was a girl, there was a particular type of documentary that set me to sitting up rigid as a mast, biting my nails. These were films by Jacques Cousteau - the ones where divers swam deep into the sea to locate disappeared ships, to uncover the mystery that caused the swallowings-up and to learn something of the lost lives of those who’d sunk with the vessels assigned to protect them, into the drink.

As the sleek, tawny-skinned divers with French accents ventured into the labyrinthine channels of the hulks at the bottom of the sea, the perils multiplied. Their oxygen was about to give out, they couldn’t open the trap into the next chamber where they were sure the captain’s log was cached (and who knew what lurked within) ravenous sharks circled…I sat riveted, breathing shallowly, trying not to use up my air, as I shone my light with them into the ship’s hold – now claimed and denied by a formidable sea - which might, at any moment, yield a fleeing princess’s lode of coins, but more probably flash a terrifying skull. How the heart in my skinny, 14-year-old body thrilled, back on Thornapple Street in Chevy Chase, when the divers emerged from the sea dangling secrets from their gloves.

I sit just as mast-like and gripped, often, during the classes I teach here at The Writer’s Center, in Bethesda - only a mile from the little den where I used to watch that tiny black and white television.

But recently, I taught a class which left me particularly breathless. At ten o’clock, I would drive home in a trance, gob-smacked by the courage of what looked from the outside to be ordinary, everyday human beings. For, from this innocent looking collection of adult night students - these people who struck out into the dark every Tuesday - emerged stories, one by one, of: a child’s suicide; the crash of a small plane that had left the writer parentless at age eight; PTSD contracted during postings war-ravaged to African countries; a threatening genetic disease; cancer; an elementary school student so abused she could barely speak…Every person in the class wrote, eloquently, with hard nouns and soft similes—and with more bravery than any French diver might boast of. There is physical courage and then there is another sort of heroism - that of those who brave searing emotions to show the rest of us certain truths. Heedless of the imperfection that would be revealed, of the re-lived sorrow that would course through them, these students, sharing their humanity, in each other’s company, holding hands—so kind, so trusting, so dear they were to one another - opened their watery lodes and passed around their bones and riches. I have a name for what these students did - what the brave students at TWC do each and every day; what they give to the world, through language, with utter fearlessness; and what leaves me gasping with awe. I call it diving into the wreck. As their teacher, as their lucky, lucky witness, I salute them.

SARA MANSFIELD TABER received a Bergeron Fellowship to teach writing in London, and was a William B. Sloane Fellow in Nonfiction at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. She is the author of Dusk on the Campo: A Journey in Patagonia, Of Many Lands: Journal of a Traveling Childhood, and Bread of Three Rivers: The Story of a French Loaf. Her short pieces have appeared in anthologies, such as Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Global and in literary magazines and on public radio. Her memoir, Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter, is in press.

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