September 4, 2018
To my new and wonderful freshmen:
Welcome to high school! I thought I would start our first week with a letter to you all. Much of what we do this year will be new to both of us! Even though I’ve taught this course a few times, now, I’m always changing things! So, as old as I am, in a sense, we will be learning together.
And what will we be doing? Reading, writing, and thinking together.
My goal, and I hope yours, is to become better and better at how we use language, how we interpret what we read, and to understand the why behind it. For that reason, expect me to be doing just about all of the assignments along with you. And expect us to share our ideas, our words.
I call myself a writer, and I hope you will think of yourselves that way, too. But writing for me means thinking richly about all kinds of topics. Do you want to talk about the DragonCon or how Idris Elba should be the next James Bond? Cool. Do you want to find out what Socrates believed about liars and gossip? Awesome. Interested in the midterm elections? Want to find some way to help the homeless? Or did you find a poem or song that really captured your feelings? Bring it. (For me, I think it may always be TSwift’s “Shake it Off.”)
But I also think writing—when it is very good—is personal. All of these topics above are important, but they are because they say something about your thinking. For that reason, I want to read your words not because I want to learn about ISIS terrorism or the challenges of veganism, but why the topic strikes you as so important, so vital.
Finally, I think words should be fun. What’s the point of writing boring essays if you can’t blow a few things up with cool language? So as we work together, I will challenge you not just to express, but to consider how you express.
I’ve been practicing this writing thing for about 40 years more than you have, so far, but I am still learning. And I hope that when I am 85 I am still learning. Don’t expect to figure everything out immediately, or the first semester, or this year, or by the time you graduate. Do expect though to discover a lot along the way.
I pause here to tell you that I also travel . . . a lot. This summer I was in Tanzania with ModelUN students to hike the Usambara mountains. I do this a lot, traveling with students or on my own, going to remote places or different cultures. I stayed once in a treehouse in Hawaii, and there was something potent, old, starkly abrasive, about the broken seas of lava which choked trees and homes. I wanted age, ancient-ness. . . . I wanted the perspective of what it meant to live for 50 years against the tens of thousands of years I walked upon. I ruined my shoes against scrambles of black desert, and I looked down into the nostrils of the earth and smelt its yawning breath. What could I ever do that might halt such power, stand against it? The home I renovate, the gifts and paintings on my shelves and walls, all of these the earth will extinguish one day through its fire or ice.
Except, perhaps, words. And so I write. And read. And help others to. The essays and poems and stories which dot their ways through my computer keyboard—these “idea children”—will outlive me. What I have to decide now is whether they will be more like the marvelous journals of Dag Hammerskjold or the disgusting movements of Nicki Minaj.
Expect to write a great deal with me. And we begin now. I’ve written you a letter. Write me back. I will let you decide what ideas to write me, how to write me. But I challenge you to be personal, to be thoughtful, to be genuine.
Thanks for reading. Welcome to Royal Oak High School. Welcome to a place of Ravens, that dark bird that is bigger than Poe said, that also connects us to ourselves and to the greater world, that tricks us by seeming simple, and that brings us wisdom.