Friday, October 28, 2016

On practice

My community college students are beginning their research papers. As a community college grad, I feel a kinship to them. In my own educational journey, I had planned to get a job after high school and be done with the whole thing. But all my friends were going on to college; I felt lost and confused. And so, with a not-so-great standing in my high school years (save for English), I applied and was accepted into Kingsborough as a secretarial major.

Many of my CC students are struggling through our English Comp class (fyi, 4-year students struggle too), which is the last class on their agenda of what they want to study. I understand struggle in those years, to wonder if CC is the first step or the last. For me, it was the last, until ten years later when I returned for a BA, the most challenging endeavor, because I wasn't an academic. I was just an unfinished girl/woman who wanted a degree.

My students and I slog through lessons on how to write a thesis--something that took me hours (and hours!) to learn. We repeat these words parrot-like: a thesis isn't a question; a thesis goes at the end of an introduction. And then I get papers that have a thesis as a first sentence, sometimes with a question mark, and I pause to wonder, how did this happen?

Then I took a watercolor class last Saturday. My goal was to paint a scene of birds, something I was copying from a Trader Joe's greeting card. My birds were a labored mess. I turned to my teacher, Joan, and said, I bet you can do this in one brushstroke. She smiled, and said, two. Then she showed me. Tip of the brush to the paper, lay it flat and brush up, like a leaf stroke. So simple. And yet, I had practiced tons of leaf strokes in Joan's absolute beginner class. But there I was: leaf stroke?

After a terrible attempt at copying the exact image, Joan told me to use just one color. And she said: leaf strokes. I was relieved. Basic steps that I could successfully do. After dozens of blue strokes, I attempted birds, all in blue. Then I attempted colors. In the photo above, Joan's bird is lower left. The last of my dozens follow, until ultimately a pretty decent rendition, lower right.

I brought my practice-birds to class on Monday. I passed them around and the class laughed. They also saw where I was going: I'm terrible at watercolor, and when I leave my teacher, I'm lost. Even though I watched and listened, carefully. And so, I practice. I try not to get down on myself, although if you look close you'll note I tore out Joan's bird. I was going to keep that and throw all my terrible work away. And then I saw the lesson in my lesson.

I'm reminded of Anne Lamott's classic book on writing, Bird by Bird. One at a time. Whatever it is. Leaf strokes. A thesis. A lesson. Demonstrate. Repeat. And again.

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