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Transitions: The First Phase of Taking Flight

posted: 8.12.13 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

“Sometimes,” a student related one day in our basic writing class, “I stand on the corner waiting for the bus. The bus never comes, but I like waiting.”  The non-resident students nodded in recognition, and the local students smiled in sympathy. No bus would be forthcoming. “Why would we need a bus?” a long-time townsperson would ask later on. “Why would anyone want to leave? We have everything we need here and we don’t want outsiders coming in.”

This class took place many years ago in a small town nestled in the foothills of the northern Appalachian Mountains. The university had recruited the student from a large city in the northeast, and he found the transitions rather startling. The quiet on our campus and in the town surprised this student. He had never lived with such quiet, and it was challenging to acclimate. My hope as a teacher was that writing would help to process, if not to mitigate, the cognitive dissonance of such extremes.

Now, fifteen years later, and after moving 2500 miles across the United States, this student’s story recalls the distractions that come with transitions. Moving cross-country throws such distractions into high relief, and I am reminded to pay attention to the emotional aspects of moving forward at the start of a new term in basic writing.

In a society that values conformity, basic writing as a marker of difference may cause no little frustration for both students and teachers, much like waiting for a bus that never arrives. We have heard the complaint of the townsperson, shaking a finger of disapproval at the presence of outsiders. For fear of aggravating our own situations, we endure our frustration without comment, even as one thousand butterfly wings flutter in our stomachs, and threaten to erupt in our voices as quavering or defiance. Yet we experience peril if we internalize the negative implications of those who would define basic writing as “remediation”—and who would portray basic writing and the students our course serves as “outsiders” to the elitist world of higher education.

Such is the lesson of transitions. Even as we allow ourselves to hope for the long-delayed arrival of the bus that will take us to our destination, we can learn to pay attention to our gradual awakening. While acknowledging the frustrations of our experiences, we can focus more specifically on the inner resources we need to move forward, learning to cultivate these resources to grow stronger as writers. In other words, much like the butterflies, we can work to rise to the occasion. Perhaps that anxious fluttering in our stomachs is indeed the stirring of magnificent wings in the first phase of learning to take our own flight.

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