Unexpected Change: the Discussion

Yesterday afternoon I watched a classroom of nineteen sophomores and juniors from Washington and Idaho, all young writers, as they listened to me reading aloud “My Cancer Summer,” slowly realize that the author of the essay – the man sitting in front of them reading – didn’t have cancer. He had HIV.

I’d hurried over from the bookstore at 10:30, up the ramp into the Mechanical Engineering Building on the University of Washington campus, and upstairs into an institutionally green, cement-block classroom on the second floor, with trucks and buses roaring by the open windows.

I like young people. I chatted with a couple of them before the class was officially brought to order by their instructor, Steve Garmanian, who introduced me with gusto to the Young Writers Workshop of the Puget Sound Writers Project. Steve enthusiastically showered me with credentials, some of which (director, screenwriter, actor) I hadn’t even earned yet.

The students were bright and attentive. When I asked if they knew what first-person narrative was, they groaned. Ah, perfect. Smarties.

I started out talking a little about what an essay was, defining it as a short story-length composition which can contain narrative but which is organized around ideas instead of plot. Then I tried to suggest the therapeutic effects of honestly translating your experience into words and seeing where that leads you. Whereas in a novel or short story language is used to create a beautiful illusion, in a memoir or essay language is used to try to nail down the truth, a much harder task.

With that established, I read the essay, “My Cancer Summer.” The students were appropriately attentive and quiet for the cancer diagnosis. Then a tight silence gripped the room when the topic of HIV was raised. The air stopped moving. The buses became silent. I managed to make it through without too many voice quavers.

They clapped at the end, and I could see that some of them were genuinely moved. The discussion began awkwardly, the young writers hesitant to venture their opinions. One by one they raised their hands. Joel felt that the vulnerable, honest voice of the essay showed the author’s trust in his reader. Attractive Lea with long blond hair had grown up with a mother who did HIV research – she knew well the stigma HIV-positive people faced. Leandro noticed that people with incurable illnesses often developed other strengths. A kid in the back whose nameplate I couldn’t see confessed he hadn’t known you could catch HIV from just one slip.

Dark-eyed, intense Sophie was the one who asked, “Did your partner know?” It was a loaded question, because until then the sex of my partner had never been disclosed.

 “Yes, unfortunately, he knew.”

The pronoun did the trick. I became very aware of being a gay man sitting before young people, a specimen of a lifestyle that maybe one or two of them would follow. Only one boy actually seemed troubled by my presence, the best-looking boy in the class, slumped down sullenly in the front corner.

The great debate finally centered around the last paragraph. Was its tone different from the rest of the piece? Joel felt it should be separated from the text by an asterisk. Christian liked the final paragraph, but Sophie and Catherine felt it could be omitted, with the essay ending on the words “barbequed ribs.”

All thoughtful, provocative suggestions. Then came the moment when the discussion had to end, and they were allowed twenty minutes to write their own essays. What change had unexpectedly altered their life? When they were done, with the last dwindling minutes of classtime, a few of them read their essays out loud.

Joel had to watch his father physically degenerating without motor neurons. Sierra’s mother had been forced to abort a damaged fetus, incurring scorn and disapproval. One by one they told or read of their unexpected changes, the beloved older brother who ran away, the beloved older sister whose baby died.

Unfortunately the bell cut us short. We went overtime, and then had to scramble vacating the room for the subsequent class, who were all waiting in the hall. I tried to say goodbye, to refreshing Natalie in her summery green dress, to witty Raghav, to bright-eyed, perceptive Charlie.

As Steve Garmanian and I walked down the stairs into the glaring sun of the afternoon, we passed Leandro, one of the kids that all my instincts told me would become a writer. Leandro had written an elaborate beginning building up to some unwritten revelation. “I’ll bring it by the bookstore when it’s done,” he promised before zipping away on his bike. I think he will.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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