The students arrived for their early evening composition class with me, most of them in their first year of college. We met twice a week in the old, cozy Frost House classroom. All twenty desks were arranged in a tight circle. The fading winter sunlight found its way through the windows. The mood was particularly somber on this particular evening. It was learned that one of our members would not be returning to class.
He and three friends from the class had gone home for a weekend visit. While his friends were doing other things, he had taken off on a three-wheeler into the snowy woods, lost control, and smashed into a tree. His high school coach had come upon the scene and was the one to relay the news to his family and friends. The young man was in the hospital, alive, but with a broken neck and paralyzed.
On learning of this his classmates (my students) began working on a project. They created a portfolio of long letters, all handwritten, filled with memories, good wishes, sorrow, and humor. We sent the package home, and his mother replied with heartfelt thanks, along with a photo of him smiling into the lens of the camera. He was smiling as we all remembered him, but now from a hospital bed. His broad smile seemed to be trying to reassure us that he was okay, that he was going to be fine, though it was hard for us to imagine the challenges he would face.
My students were changed through the experience of loss, but also through the acts of compassion they took. They were surprised that their writing had meant so much to his mother, even though most of them did not know his family at all. They commented on the power of writing to express all sorts of feelings.
I believe they learned more about the importance of writing from that experience than from the other assignments completed for class. As they moved on in their coursework, I am sure they did not forget how important writing could be. After this experience, perhaps they began to understand how important they individually were.
And still are.