Blessed Be the Ties That Bind, by Tiffany Holbert

My relationship with Tiffany is unlike any other I’ve had with a student.

She is a quiet, private, young woman and probably dreads this essay more than the others. This, however, is the reward for finishing her essay, Blessed Be the Ties That Bind, a rumination on her life in a Tampa church after her parents divorce.

She’s the only one of The Invictus Writers who didn’t earn the Baptism By Fire badge in my Introduction to Magazine Writing class (which Invictus Writer David Ake writes about here). Instead, she’s a refugee from my Media Ethics class, a Socratic-styled class where students write 10 6-page, single-spaced papers and make 10 group arguments based upon a series of case studies.

In an education world where a majority of students will go through four-years of school without ever writing a 20-page paper, my students were churning out 12-page equivalent papers ever week. On top of that, they were forced to use wiki software and Google Docs to build 6-minute presentations in less than 36-hours.

As you might imagine, this class was trying. Students spent their in-class time making arguments, coordinating work, and organizing thoughts. The room was consistently abuzz with activity.

Exactly the kind of place where my quiet students – like Tiffany – can get lost.

I’m particular about these quiet students. I’ve learned throughout the years that quiet doesn’t mean disengaged anymore than students typing on a laptop during lecture means disengaged. Fortunately, we live in a time of social media where students and professors share Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. I can see things that just a few years before I would have mised.

As my students would gather online on Monday nights (the night before papers were due) and Wednesday nights (the night before presentations), I would watch them – I would learn about them – as they would post status updates about my class, share songs to motivate each other, and generally entertain each other – virtually – while they worked.

Then they would come back to the real world, the shadow of their digital selves hovering around them. For many, their personas were the same. Tiffany, though, was different. She was a reserved offline as she was brash online.

It wasn’t until the next semester when she signed up for my Introduction to Social Media course that she began to open up. Her personality poked through. She opened up in class. More importantly, she began to trust me with things more important than class. And she found her way to me to discuss writing, something she’d hoped to do instead of public relations, her major.

(My response then: “You’re looking for me to give you permission to be a writer. I can’t give that to you. Only you can do that.” It was, I suspect, not a helpful answer.)

I have these conversations often with students, and as a general rule I discourage them from pursuing the career. She was insistent, though, so I began to offer her books to read, writers to follow, and steps to take. I pushed her to write daily, and sent her on missions to graduate programs to do informational interviews.

Our student-teacher relationship grew, and before I knew it I was at graduation dinner with her parents, her sister, her niece and nephew, and her sister’s boyfriend. For a brief moment, I was an adopted member of the Holbert clan, a strange interloper.

Since then we’ve stayed in touch. We’ve had coffee in city. We drove 4 1/2 hours round trip to Ikea to furnishh her big girl apartment. She’s had lunch with my sister. All the while, I’ve watched her struggle with the transition into the real world. I’ve talked with her about her family, her life, her writing, and her plans. She’s become like a daughter to me, one of the important students whose numbers continue to swell in my life.

The Invictus Writers experience has been painful for her. She’s not steeped in the storytelling world. She wasn’t born out of my writing class. But she’s chosen to be here, and she’s battled through draft, after draft, after draft, getting the boot camp-styled treatment first from me and then from David.

I watched her emotions spill out across Twitter just as I watched them spill out nearly two years ago on Facebook during those long Media Ethics nights. I watched her struggle to wrap her head around the long-form story form. These are the not-so-enjoyable nights as a teacher, but they are nights that teachers understand must happen.

And in the end, I watched her finish her piece. She beat back the demon and survived the battle. This is a good feeling she will have, one that answers the question she asked me last year: What am I supposed to do with my life?