Students Outshine Instructor

Previously I’ve mentioned, maybe even a couple of times, that I was the facilitator for a senior writing group in Las Vegas around 1999 and the early 2000’s. I had answered an ad in the local paper in response to a help wanted ad for a volunteer writing instructor, since I missed not being associated with a writing group as I had been for the previous nine or ten years in Ohio and Tennessee.

I had been told the group’s previous teacher, herself a nurse/poet, had begun the class several years before, but had recently succumbed to cancer. It was her fervent wish that the group continue without her, so the core group of ladies, most in their seventies, tried to keep it going themselves, but had been struggling to keep the numbers high enough for the center to continue to afford it the space. 

To prepare for my coming and a new beginning, they had telephoned everyone who had ever shown up even once for the class, so that morning–my first class–I walked into the classroom to face a conference table full of men and women, somewhere around a dozen, perhaps more. I’m sure they were all as nervous as I. They knew, and I knew, that we both had expectations of each other and no one could predict the outcome.

I introduced myself and asked each person to introduce him or herself in return, and tell us a few things about themselves and what they expected to get from a class we were calling “creative writing.” Long story short, most of those faces other than the faithful core group never showed up in my class again. I knew I had a long row to hoe in front of me, but also that in order to get the last row you have to start out at the beginning. But soon, word of mouth prevailed, and the group slowly grew to a comfortably full table each Friday morning.

The next four years proved to be a high point and a difficult period of my “teaching” career. You don’t reach the age most of these people had reached by kowtowing to somebody else’s idea of how to do things. Some wanted critiques and wanted to learn to write better, others did not. Some just wanted someone to listen to them for a period of time at least that one day a week. Everyone had different needs, and I tried to accommodate them to the best of my ability. It wasn’t easy, but one of the best accolades I’ve ever received was an acknowledgement to me by one of these ladies in her first book which she published weeks before her death. At my suggestion she had taken a collection of disconnected family memories and stories and incorporated them into a full-length “novel” of a family moving cross-country to the western frontier in the mid-1800’s.

Then sometime in the following year or perhaps the one after that, three newcomers showed up, though I cannot remember in which order. I remember Jim, one of the first male members to show up and have the guts to stay around and share his writing to a class full of opinionated women. After the first class or two, he paused after class one day to ask respectfully if he might start bringing his wife along to class even though she would not be a participant. Of course that was not a problem at all.

And that’s how we met Josephine, his lovely wife who was either in or near her nineties at the time, and had some problems hearing that prevented her from being an active participant. This lovely couple was the epitome of devotion after many years of a successful May/December marriage in reverse, Jim being the younger of the two. Jim had a twinkle in his eyes, and a wry sense of humor that he brought out in his writing. In class we had talked a lot about writers needing to learn how to lie well in order to write fiction with that necessary “ring of truth.” Jim was quite the accomplished liar, and I mean that with no disrespect to his character, only as a tribute to his writing.

My very favorite of Jim’s short stories is “The Fruit-Fly Festival” which you can read yourself on his webpage. Jim led a very adventurous life, which he uses to advantage in his short stories, but he would never tell me whether the events of the fruit-fly festival actually happened. As I love feisty older adults who refuse to be outdone by city hall, I like to think it actually did happen–or most of it anyhow. Make your own conclusions by going to his webpage through the link above, click short stories. Fruit-fly is the second story scrolling down, just past the first one “Balling Anchovies.” There are also lovely pictures of both Jim and Josephine taken in 2007 in the pictures link.

Another impressive couple also joined us around the same time, Ginger and Phil. I was to learn soon enough there was little Ginger could not do, but–in addition to her talented family–she will tell you that her passions are writing and art. In addition to fantasy fiction, she writes children’s stories, and she is an accomplished, award winning sculptor in both bronze and clay. You can see Ginger’s accomplishments for yourself by surfing around on her webpage.

Ginger’s husband, Phil, is also a very talented writer, particularly of western tales. His webpage shows his multitalents as well. Besides completing his novel THE AMBASSADOR, on which he was working during the years of our creative writing association, Phil is also an accomplished sculptor, who uses concrete as his medium. (For future reference, all three of these webpages are listed in my sidebar Blogroll, as Captain Jim, Ginger’s Space, and Phil’s Western Tales.)

By that time our group was sprouting a very impressive group of would-be writers, including the violinist who’d graduated Julliard and played in orchestras for many many years who was now returning to her first love first encouraged by an elementary school teacher when she was around six, writing. There was the retired nurse from Massachusetts whose writing incorporated her Boston accent, the neighbor and writer from California who was herself the daughter of a journalist who wrote fabulous Erma Bombeck style humor as well as poignant serious musings and poetry, and eventually the woman who had spent some years in an artistic quest in the middle east, been wooed and unsuccessfully wooed by princes and taxi drivers alike, and managed to escape. When I was leaving Las Vegas this woman had just begun self-producing one-woman plays she’d written herself portraying this period in her life. I wish I could showcase all their work in this post as well, but unfortunately I’ve lost touch with most of them.

Forgive me for bragging about the impressive group of writers and artists I was fortunate in attracting to my little creative writing group in the heydays of my Las Vegas adventure. I ceased calling myself “instructor” of this impressive group from the advent of day one, referring to myself thereafter as “facilitator” instead. Still, it’s gratifying for me to see how far some of my group members have gone, and how high they continue to climb. 

They are prime examples of students outshining the teacher (which is how they still refer to me). Sometimes just being there to remind them they can do it seems to be enough after all.

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8 thoughts on “Students Outshine Instructor

  1. This is wonderful! I’m a great believer in encouraging seniors to write, and I’d love the opportunity to “facilitate” such a group! I’d also like to try out my new little book, “Seniorwriting: A Brief Guide for Seniors Who Want to Write” in such a class, The idea is just to stand back and let the creativity flow!

    I posted a link to this story on my blog “Write Your Life!”

  2. I taught photography to adults for many years. I was always delighted when one of my students continued studying or working in the field and surpassed me. If I couldn’t be a great photographer, at least I could be an inspiration to someone else. Very satisfying.

  3. Oh How wonderful. Our writing workshop teacher died recently, and another lovely lady has moved in to follow in this brilliant woman’s footsteps. How difficult to do this. How wonderfully you solved the problems and created your own group. This is just delightful. Thank you too for the links. I’ll get to each one at least once before I vanish back to work for a week.

  4. I read the Fruit Fly story by Jim – what a hoot! I can only imagine what the group looked like romping on the golf course illuminated by the lights of the plane! I don’t think much of that story was made up.

    Knowing you as I do, you were more than a facilitator to your group – you were an inspiration.

  5. Oh, I bet this was fun, Alice. Like you, I SO enjoy the company of older and feisty people. That’s why I enjoyed my home health nursing so much. So many of my characters now are a composite of many of them.
    I did visit Jim’s site and read his story..what a riot and it’s absurd enough to be true….lol You know what they say, truth is stranger than fiction.
    And I DO hope you’ll consider being a judge for me.

  6. Alice, you were our treasure of knowledge and support. In your gentle way you headed us in the right direction with your praise and critiques of our works. Since then I have given up teaching computers to have more time for my writing and art. I have a writer’s web site at http://gingeredwards.net/ and several other websites about writing, art and computers. Between writing and my crit groups, I have been making ceramic skulls – too much fun. You can see the skulls at http://skulls4u.googlepages.com/

    I will always be grateful for your friendship and your generous help. If I had not come to your class, and I only came to support my husband Phil, I wouldn’t be writing today. Thank you.
    Ginger Edwards

  7. Ah Ginger, you’re much too kind, but I really appreciate you taking the time to comment. I hope you get rich with all your art projects and the skulls!

  8. Oh Alice!
    Rich would be great, but right now I’m hoping to pay for Phil’s hearing aids. I wish Social Security went up like gas, food, utility bills, medications, etc., etc. Since it doesn’t, I’m working hard making skulls which I hope to sell because so far I haven’t received money from my writing.

    Thanks for your wishes for riches.

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