I have vivid memories of the high school English teacher who ruined writing for me. I don’t remember her name, but she was tall and slender, and she wore flowing, button-down blouses and kept money and slips of paper tucking into her left-shoulder bra strap. I cringed every time she reached behind those shirt buttons and pulled something out.
She was propper and groomed and articulate and full of herself. Her criticism of my writing was consistent. It wasn’t about punctuation or grammar. She corrected what I still remember to this day to be stylistic differences. She only knew one way to write, and if my classmates and I wanted good grades, we had to conform. I couldn’t do that. I wasn’t an idealist or full of confidence and rebellion. I just couldn’t write her way. I lacked the talent. So I dropped out of advanced English down to regular English, and I spent the next couple of decades or so convinced I couldn’t write and feeling traumatized by rare glimpses of money tucked under bra straps.
I didn’t hate school. Most of it was an unimpactful haze. But I remember Mr. Thomas. He was the history teacher who encouraged us to debate everything that happened from the 1920s to the then present day 1980s. We didn’t have to agree with him. In fact, I don’t ever remember knowing his opinion. I remember him encouraging us to develop arguments based on facts and our budding little ideologies, and go at each other, respectfully, of course, while he sat on the corner of his desk and chuckled gleefully at the cauldron of confrontation he was brewing.
My memories of Mr. Thomas are important to my writing because they convince me I wasn’t just a hater. I didn’t loath school. I skipped class occasionally when I thought I could get away with it. I left campus at lunch, despite rules against it, because sometimes I just wanted a slice of authentic Jersey pizza with sprinkle parmesan to soak up the grease. But I didn’t dread getting out of bed in the mornings or daydream about offing my teachers or burning down the building. School was fine, Mr. Thomas was great, and Ms. Bra Strap shoved my interest in writing into a cold, wet, gray sock.
I’m a recovered alcoholic. It would be predictable to say the “comeback story” of my lifetime is about sobriety and recovery, but that would be burying the lead. The real internal triumph for me was convincing myself to write, and then finding people who encouraged me to keep going.
My neighbors run a community magazine with a circulation of something like 5,000 homes on the southeast side of Denver. I remember asking with great trepidation if I could write an article for them. “Writing is an art. It takes talent. What do you know about writing,” is the answer I anticipated when I finally worked up the courage to casually pitch the idea after an adult league soccer game one Thursday night a bunch of years ago. “You haven’t scored a goal in six months, and your defensive footwork is slow and clumsy, so there’s no way you can write.” (See how my insecurities are unrelatedly intertwined in my cranial chamber of low self-esteem.)
But that’s not what he said. He encouraged me, as did his wife who was the editor of my monthly submissions for the next couple of years. They paid me what they could, when they could, but still – they had as much influence on me developing a sustainable writing career as anyone. They valued the written word and storytelling and passionate ideas, and they made me feel like part of something that mattered.
I have grown to know that feeling as belonging. I need you and you need me, and we belong in partnership together on some level. Belonging isn’t about being the teacher, and it isn’t about being the student. It is about being both at the same time, and the need for belonging resides deep in every one of us. It is hard-wired into the human condition. And we ignore it at our own peril.
Mr. Thomas took a rectangular, cinder block room with 30 or so identical sets of desks and chairs, and created a sense of belonging. Who would I argue my points against with the conviction of an invincible seventeen-year-old had Mr. Thomas not found for me an equally determined and idealistic peer with the opposite opinion? Mr. Thomas cackled as he sprinkled gasoline on the heated exchanges, but whether he knew it or not, he made us all feel like we belonged.
Ms. Bra Strap was incapable of creating a sense of belonging for the same reason politicians and business moguls and elite athletes and other tyrants struggle. Insecurity. If she made room for another way, that would threaten the idea that she was right and her way was the only way. If the ideas or opinions of the non-conformers had merit, she might become obsolete. Control and power and (usually) money all fall in line behind those best adapted to protect their insecurities at all costs. To show open mindedness or to consider outside opinions is a sign of weakness.
But weakness is a requirement of belonging.
If I don’t feel weak in some ways, what do I need you for? The insecure hide their weaknesses. The truly brave among us share our weaknesses in honesty, authenticity and vulnerability.
And if I didn’t move past my insecurities – climb out of the wet sock and start writing – I wouldn’t know how much I needed you. You probably would feel no sense of need for my relatable experiences. We would not belong to each other.
I have long had a previously unidentifiable need to feel that sense of belonging with high schoolers. I have coached high school soccer for many years. I have always assumed I coach in high school because I don’t have the qualifications to coach in college, and I used up all my patience for coaching younger age groups. Now that I’ve written about it, I realize I coach in high school thanks to Mr. Thomas and Ms. Bra Strap. They taught me the difference between the insecure need for control and the belonging derived from having the confidence to let go. And they taught me that in high school, so I am drawn to return to the scene of the crime.
Maybe that’s why I am so passionate about the newest writing group that our nonprofit organization, Stigma, has launched. The Developing Story is a writing workshop for teens who have been impacted by alcohol abuse in their households. It is an opportunity to write and read and listen and explore and learn and teach and to heal. It is a chance to share a safe and authentic space, through the magic of technology, with peers who really get it, and feel seen and heard – maybe (likely) for the first time in their lives.
It is a place to belong.
The Developing Story Writing Workshop isn’t really about writing. It is about finding that safe corner of the world for self expression, and it is about receiving relentlessly positive feedback, because no one should ever argue the validity of our experiences.
It is not therapy. It is not moderated by a psychologist (it is moderated by our daughter, Cathryn, with the very lived experiences our writers share). It is not more homework, and there are never any assignments or grades. The Developing Story is empathy and understanding and safety and belonging.
For more details about the format and timing and expectations, and to hear samples of some of the writing prompts we use in the sessions, listen to our conversation with Cathryn on the Untoxicated Podcast episode 208 where we break it all down. Or check out our information and enrollment page by clicking the button below. As always, questions and feedback are welcome.
We live in an age when mental health is finally being valued just as the post-pandemic fallout is making the shortage of mental health resources painfully clear. Therapy is great. We are big therapy fans. But availability is tight and therapy is often expensive. So we live in an age where we must get creative and explore alternative mental health interventions. There is an important role for peer support, and the value of getting the traumas and chaos out of our heads and into a tangible format is indisputable. Do you know someone who deserves to explore their developing story?
If so, we hope you’ll give our newest program some serious consideration, because keeping painful memories locked inside is as insecure as keeping money tucked under a bra strap.
Learn more, ask questions, or take the initial step for enrollment in: