One of the rewards of the writing life is teaching writing. I taught composition for some years at a US military base in Naples, Italy. I remember a young soldier who had grown up poor in the Caribbean. He struggled with standard English, with school in general, and walked into my English composition course with probably as much sickening dread as I would have brought to Marines basic training. His name was Henry.
We were to teach the standard essay format with standard assignments (this is the military, remember). Next up was a “before and after” essay. I suggested picking a very concrete topic, and focusing narrow to make a larger point, although the larger p0int wasn’t required.
Henry’s essay was about the difference in his brother’s hands before and after the drug addiction that took his life, from a loving description of the smooth, killed, caring, clean hands of the “before,” to the cracked, stained hands and ragged, split nails of “after,” to the yellow pallor of those hands when Henry identified his brother’s wasted body. The essay took my breath away.
I wanted Henry to read it to the class. For him, this must have felt like being ordered to the front line of battle, but I was the teacher and he was a soldier, so he obeyed. I remember a tall, muscular man with cafe’ au lait skin that grew ruddy with embarrassment as he made his way to my desk and faced the ranks of uniforms.
He read the essay and finished with something like: “And that was the difference between my brother’s hands before and after drugs.” There were about twenty in the class, mostly men. Nobody moved after the last line. Then somebody clapped; then they all clapped. The ice broken, a few shouted; one whistled.
Henry turned to me, tears in his eyes. “They got it,” he said. “They understood what I was saying.” I said they certainly did.