By Roberta P. Gardner
One of my earliest memories of writing in school was a failed scribble drawing of my deceased cat, Honey. She wasn’t officially my cat, but I was the one who played with her every day, and I let her know that she was loved. I used to sneak her bowls of milk and slices of cheese, and I gave her a name. I was a latchkey kid, and Honey and I played together every day after school. One day as we were playing, I chased her into the street and she was hit by a car that almost hit me, too. Honey died. I considered it my fault, and for a long time, I couldn’t get the screech of the cat or the car out of my mind. The images of Honey’s deflated body and the lurching car were recurring phantoms.
A few days after Honey died, my first grade teacher told us to write or draw a picture about anything that we wanted, and that was the story that came out. Fits of purple, black, gray, and red were punctuated with indiscriminate words that formed a funnel of fury on my page. My teacher had a habit of walking around the room to see how everyone was coming along. She maneuvered through the maze of desks, stopping periodically to exclaim with zeal and delight about the pretty pictures that my first grade peers were creating. Her sing-song praise fell silent when she reached me.
I don’t remember her exact words, but I do recall narrow eyes, a furrowed brow, the rapid click clack of her shoes and an extended arm with a clean sheet of paper. She told me to make a pretty picture with no scribbling. As several classmates peered over my shoulder to see what all the fuss was about, I used my elbow to shield the sadness and rage that I’d created on the page. My story felt unwelcome, and somehow deviant.
I’m sure that my teacher meant well, but at six years old, I was already being schooled into writing primarily for performance and assessment rather than for my own spirit. I didn’t want to make a pretty picture for her, and I didn’t want to tell anyone about what had happened. In fact, that piece of manila paper was the only space where I felt like I could begin to make sense of my sadness, loss, and confusion about the finality of death.
Expressive Writing’s Healing Benefits
Later in life when I encountered devastating traumas, my times spent reading, writing, doodling, drawing, and scribbling would serve as essential respites for me. When I turned to writing as a salve, I didn’t know anything about Pennebaker’s research emphasizing the benefits of expressive writing in relation to trauma. I hadn’t yet learned how writing can help us to find our voices again, which often fall silent when we experience trauma. I also wasn’t aware of the many ways it supported mental recovery and social reconciliation. I just knew that I needed a space to make sense of a world that suddenly stopped making sense to me. Writing allowed me to have witness, even if it was just me. If other people understood or applauded what I wrote, then that was okay, too.
By Shadra Strickland. Used with permission.
Writing out the traumatic memories that we live through or witness is an important part of the coping and healing process for children and adults. It has proven to be beneficial for addressing both personal and collective traumas, and it’s important to encourage and normalize these stories and the emotional chaos that accompanies them, particularly across the preK-12 and university spectrum. As scholars Elizabeth Dutro and Stephanie Jones have each argued, exploring our wounds and scars through writing is important not only for students, but also for teachers.
When future teachers encounter stories that feature children using writing or drawing to confront difficulties associated with substance abuse in the home, immigration, the death of a loved one, neighborhood violence, and racism, they gain a deeper understanding of how writing can foster a spirit of resilience, creativity, and intellectual exploration for children encountering crisis. In my children’s literature and the arts course for elementary educators, students read books such as Bird (Elliot, 2008), My Name is Yoon (Recorvits, 2003), Locomotion (Woodson, 2003), Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun ( Canada, 2010) and Darkroom (Weaver, 2012).
Grief and healing are complex and painful processes. As much as I believe that writing is one of the most powerful ways to help others through tough times, I also know that it is not a panacea. Sharing and listening to narratives of crisis, loss, and trauma is not easy. However, this is not just about telling sad stories. It’s about thinking critically about whom writing is supposed to serve and for what purposes. Perhaps most importantly, it’s about parents, teachers, and educators recognizing that students need safe and nurturing spaces to share all kinds of stories, particularly those stories that aren’t so easily understood. Doing so might help all of us to live more fully. Providing children with opportunities for judgment-free writing, exposing them to alternative formats for narrating trauma, and creating therapeutic storywriting groups within or outside of school, are examples of ways to use writing as a path towards healing.
Roberta P. Gardner is an assistant professor of language and literacy at the University of Mary Washington. A continuing thread of her research includes children’s responses to literature, student-teacher-family-communal practices, and critical literacy practices.