In Writing

The campus writing center is hardly a likely location for a love story. It is brightly lit, and the furnishings are dominating by serviceable tables and bookshelf full of style manuals, guides to technical writing, and the occasional anthology. Conversation usually revolves around refining thesis statements and discussing the finer points of comma splices and academic diction. Sometimes things are very wild, and after talking about structure and organization, we try increasing the rhetorical punch of a conclusion.

He is a freshman, finishing up a mandatory paper for first year ethics class, in which he must give and defend his “life mission statement.” The professor, bless him, has offered extra credit for a visit to the writing center, and over the past week most of the class has trickled through our doors. It is the sort of assignment that seems great in concept–mission! values! fufilment!–and, in fact, this sort of self-knowledge can be the sort of thing that animates a life. But purpose is better to have and to manifest than to talk about.  In the hands of conscientious but inexperienced freshmen, the prompt has largely produced pages of untested cliches, the realest moments places where doubt seeps through.

He is nervous about grammar and offers the customary disclaimer that he’s bad at English, as though the tutors of the writing center stand ready to judge his soul on the offense of a misplaced comma. But his life mission starts not with “traditional values” or “giving back to the community,” but in the well-traveled experience of six younger siblings. Leadership, he says, matters to him because he cares what happens to specific people. And when I ask him to clarify a connection in one of his paragraphs, I can watch him seeing them.

Forty minutes later, his comma nerves are (somewhat) soothed and his organizational structure strengthened. I ask if he is going someplace warm for spring break. His smile is full of confidence: “Oh, I’m going home. It will be great.”

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