Beginner Mind

Back when I was teaching full time, I had an open door policy with my students, which meant I always had tissues on hand. I was the go-to professor to cry on.

Once, I sat in my office with a Latina freshman in tears.

“I’m a bad writer,” she said. “I always have been.”

“Why do you say you’re a bad writer?”

“Because all my teachers have told me. I get bad grades, even when I try my hardest. And I just don’t know enough words. Everyone else knows all these words that are perfect, and they know how to use them. Even when I try to use those words, they sound stupid. I sound stupid. Maybe I am stupid. I don’t belong in college.”

Every semester, I had at least a dozen conversations like this: I’m a bad writer. I don’t know how to learn. My vocabulary isn’t big enough. Everyone told me I shouldn’t be here. They were right.

One of the reasons I quit my job as a professor is because I’d seen too many young artists and intellectuals crushed by the U. S. educational system. Too many students who’d been told their whole lives that the way they wrote naturally wasn’t the “right” way, that they were too far behind in English language acquisition to learn. As these students stood on the cusp of adulthood, they were told it was basically too late for them.

I handed my student a tissue and asked, “Do you speak Spanish?”

She nodded.

“At home, do you mostly speak Spanish?”

She nodded again. “My mom doesn’t speak English, so we always speak Spanish at home. I try to teach my little brothers and sisters English, but it’s hard. My dad doesn’t want us to forget Spanish, so he gets mad when we speak English.”

I tapped a finger on the table that separated us. “You know, I don’t speak Spanish.”

She looked at me blankly.

“I have a big English vocabulary because I’ve spent my whole life speaking English, around other people who always spoke English, in schools that only taught in English, except for special ‘foreign’ language classes. You speak Spanish the way I speak English. And on top of that, you speak English well enough to earn a spot in a college-level course. If you and I were to count all the words we know in English and Spanish, chances are, you’d have a bigger vocabulary than I do.”

The tears stopped.

“Quit short-changing yourself,” I said. “Simply by being here, you’ve proven you’re smart. You’re capable. You do have a big vocabulary–you just use words most of your teachers don’t know. You are exactly in the right place to continue adding to your talents, to keep adding English words to your toolbelt. And you can do it.”

Research shows that the way we traditionally teach is most effective for white males. But in my time as a professor, my classrooms had very few white males. My classes were overwhelmingly made up of women, and those women were not usually white.

Furthermore, the way we are taught to write in school–the traditional five paragraph essay that starts with a thesis, and every paragraph starts with a topic sentence and includes hard evidence to support that topic sentence and the thesis, the essay that moves from Point A to Point B to Point C and to a conclusion that must be irrefutable–that is the way white men have historically communicated.

In contrast, the research shows that women and people of color don’t communicate in this linear way. Native Americans, for instance, speak and write in elegant spirals, rather than straight lines, which makes sense when you consider their oral storytelling culture, one rooted in the cycles of nature, of life itself. And yet, many Native Americans end up in special education classes as children, because they speak and write and think in ways that our white male-dominated educational system doesn’t support.

No wonder so many of my students have internalized the message that they are bad writers.

So one of my favorite things I do now is to work–outside of formal education–with emerging writers, and especially writers who have been told they are bad students but have somehow held onto a spark of rebellion that says, You’re wrong. I have a story to tell and a way to tell it that is true to who I am. 

These are my favorite writers. They are tenacious. They are feisty. They have a way of looking at the world and articulating their vision in a way that runs counterpoint to our literary market that is saturated with white, male, middle class, cis perspectives.

Don’t get me wrong. I still have clients I love working with, both experienced and less-experienced, who are white, who are male, who are middle class, who still struggle to birth their own creative work.

What I love is the beginner mind (or shoshin, from Zen Buddhism): the one that doesn’t have to unlearn all the trite lessons we more experienced writers have internalized. They are experimental. They challenge my assumptions. They are open and eager and infectious in their desire to grow.

These are the writers who cultivate my own beginner mind.