The Transgressive Power of Ordinary Acts

by Meg Petersen, Professor of English

“My first contact with writing as such was under some trees, seated on benches of wooden planks, with a retired teacher who had set about helping the neighbor’s children who could not go to school to become literate.  With her, I learned to read and write.”

As I listened to Ana Berkis at the Dominican Writing Project workshop, I found myself moved by her writing.  At the same time, a part of me was uncomfortable, as I thought about how stories like hers are usually framed.  We think about the subjects of these narratives as overcoming near impossible odds to become literate, in what I once described as a miracle.  But that narrative leaves so much out, and I wonder if we might think about these experiences in a different way.  Ana Berkis might well have come reluctantly to those benches under the tree.  She might have resented being distracted from her play with her twelve brothers and sisters. It is nearly certain that she did not grasp the importance of learning to write, and the effect it might have on her life.

Ana Berkis’s story began with the experience she described with the retired teacher under the tree.  She had not been able to attend public school because the family could not afford uniforms and supplies.  That changed when her father, dedicated to the belief that his children “learn something,” came up with the idea of splitting notebooks and pencils in half with a machete so two children could share them. Those who behaved better got the ends of the pencils with the erasers. Often there was not enough paper, so Ana Berkis wrote on the wrapping paper from the local colmado, or on plantain leaves.  Eventually, her mother bought her a larger eraser so she could reuse the pages in her brothers’ and sisters’ old notebooks, writing new words over them in an odd palimpsest of thoughts made visible.  She found herself captivated by the stories she herself created.  From that time on, she wrote, she has not been able to live without writing.

It is easy to respond to Ana Berkis’s story, as many workshop participants did, by calling it inspiring.  By that we usually mean it says something about Ana Berkis, that she motivates us because  she came from humble circumstances and learned to write.  We might even be tempted to use it as a weapon against those who came from similar situations and did not achieve what she did.   Ultimately, our reactions end there, with people like Ana Berkis seen as exceptional beings, a testimony to what anyone can achieve with effort and determination. While I don’t discount Ana Berkis’s agency in this story, this framing obscures much more than it reveals. It is too dismissive of those who cared enough to connect her with the written word at a time when she had no idea of its power. It ignores the ordinary labor behind such miracles.  It wasn’t a miracle that her father split those notebooks and pencils. It was an act of love, an act of hope for the future of his children, and an act of faith in education to transform their lives. It wasn’t a miracle that the retired teacher gathered the children under the tree to teach them to read and write.  It was a testimony to her understanding of the power that literacy could provide at a time when her students were unable to understand that power for themselves. It was  a statement of her belief in their right to that power.

This belief is fundamental, yet it flies in the face of prevailing wisdom. In order to teach writing well, we need to be open to the beings before us. We have to see beyond outward appearances and common assumptions through to their human potential. We have to understand that they are the subjects of their own lives, and that these lives have dignity and worth.  We have to know that their very presence in our classrooms is an embodiment of the hope and the belief in education of the adults who care for them. It is all too easy to fail to see students like Ana Berkis. It can be easier to see what she lacks, rather than see what is revealed on the pages of the piece of notebook her father parted with his machete, in the writing she has superimposed over what she erased to make room for it.

Because we risk not seeing her, not seeing her family, it is all the more important that we hear Ana Berkis’s story, and that we hear it as more than a testimony to the individual human spirit.  The ordinary acts of her parents and teachers were transgressive, defying the prevailing assumptions about her and children like her.  Without those ordinary acts that led her to the power of words on the page, Ana Berkis would not be participating in this workshop at the Ministry of Culture. She would not be teaching literature at a university now, and she would not have written, on her application for the writing project institute, that she believes “writing can be transcendent in people’s lives.”  Ana Berkis would not have become one of the adults who is connecting others with that power.

The acts of Ana Berkis’s teachers and parents were profoundly political. They were an expression of belief in the empowerment of people from marginalized communities. They are an expression of the understanding that people in these communities need and deserve access to the kind of public voice written language can give them. When I was drawn to write about Ana Berkis’s story, I thought about reimagining her narrative, not as a testament to the human spirit, but as a call to action, to a renewed commitment to what we do every day, the ordinary and sometimes arduous work of teaching writing. I hope this story can remind us that this kind of day to day labor means so much more than we think. It is a political act, an affirmation of the value and importance, not only of writing itself, but of the lives of the students we teach.