Yesterday morning I was at my university’s spring semester convocation assembly, fighting sleepy thoughts, and listening to the choir sing “Total Praise”, when towards the end of the piece a soloist’s voice broke in, and completely roused me from my personal zone/stupor. I was utterly floored when I looked up and saw that the voice belonged to one of my former students. What a voice! I couldn’t believe that it came out of him, because for the two semesters that I had him in classes, he was — honestly — kind of unremarkable: quiet, and seldom participating. If he did contribute to the discussions, he never spoke loudly, or with passion, and yet there was clearly that much power inside of him. I was so moved, not just by the choir and that young man’s voice, but also by the thought of how amazing it is to be surprised by someone in that way; that inside a person there can be something so remarkable, and beautiful, and just so shocking in the best of ways, and wasn’t I privileged to witness that?

It wasn’t the first time a student surprised me — in fact, I still think about P., who I had in class about ten years ago. He was kind of intimidating-looking (it didn’t help that he came to class the first day still recovering from a gunshot wound to his left arm), and had a personal history to back that up, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Then, one day in class, he raised his hand and proceeded to contribute some incredibly insightful observations and interpretations about a piece we were reading and I was just blown away. Over the next two years that I knew him, he would drop by my office and chat and we’d talk about school, and life, and what he was reading. In the time that I knew him he never changed the way he outwardly looked: dreadlocks, sagging pants, gold chains — the works, and I often wondered how many people on the outside world would have the chance to see the P. that I knew was in there. I don’t know what he’s doing now, but I hope that whatever it is, he is surprising people right and left and making them all walk away thinking: what a privilege it was to have spoken with that young man today.

I love being surprised by people — especially by the young people I work with. I love writing about that process. I hope I manage to capture that feeling of mouth-dropping amazement that happens when you are surprised to see what’s inside of someone and, in the process of discovery, you learn that much more about yourself, too. At any rate, I want to be able to do that in my writing — to take the reader on that  journey. Yes, what happens in a book is always important, but who it happens to, and how that person is changed as a result — that’s what a reader remembers, long after the book is closed. People are the catalysts for change; plot is the vehicle for it to happen. What I always want to experience in the books that I read is that process of spending time with a skillfully-developed character long enough to be surprised by him, to have that thrilling moment of discovery — to feel the way I did yesterday, when I heard my student’s voice fill the gymnasium with sound. Those are the books I remember — because in changing me, they became a part of me.

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