“I shouldn’t cry.”
(You’re not doing anything wrong.)
“You can leave the room if you want.”
(Why in the world would I want to do that?)
For several years, I’ve coached high school seniors on writing their college application essays. Every student is different, and my job is to help them bring out their unique voices. The tools of my trade are simple: Laptop, pen, paper. But one tool is deceptively complex: I always provide, prominently displayed, a large box of tissues.
Many students cry, and tears are often an important part of their writing process. Their tears makes sense. They’re stepping forward, trying out a new level of autonomy, facing a strange world. It’s scary, filled with potential, brimming with emotion. Most are surprised to find themselves crying, and they’re mortified. They apologize (“I’m sorry”). They’re embarrassed (“I shouldn’t cry.”) They assume I’m uncomfortable and offer me an escape hatch (“You can leave the room if you want.”). But I assure them that if there are tears, there’s also heart. And if there’s heart, there’s a wonderful, moving essay waiting to be tapped.
Crying takes different forms for different people. Sometimes my students become choked up, or their eyes fill with tears — a fleeting moment, and then composure. Sometimes they need to take a break, racked with sobs. Sometimes they write as they cry. Most important, I always encourage them not to fight the tears. Instead, I guide them to follow their own tears to their deepest internal source, and then bring that source back to the surface, into the words that will shape their essays. If they’re fighting their own tears, they’re fighting their own selves.
Not all students cry; their source grows from a different part of their emotional core. But for those who cry, the source of their tears invariably leads to an essay of authenticity and character. Their tears are valuable, an unerring guide. Their essays sing, chant, speak, whisper, shout.
The process of writing is often an experience of tremendous personal growth. In our initial meeting, students usually arrive stressed and overwhelmed; in our final meeting, they’re completely surprised by the empowerment they own. They grow before my eyes, simultaneously fawn-like and mature. I’m so honored to be a part of each journey.
It moves me to tears.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a blogger and author of two novels. Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a new school that opens her world. Tightwire, Amy’s second novel, continues to follow Caroline, this time as a rookie psych intern treating her first patient — a stormy, brilliant, troubled young man who ran away from the circus to find himself. Amy blogs about a variety of subjects including college applications, adolescence, parenting and a Rolling Stones concert. She also collaborates with educators who include her work in their curriculum. To learn more about Amy, visit her website.