Reinvention

January 19,2012
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I'm reading my way through stacks of letters of introduction that my students wrote last week. While it's a lot of reading, I also enjoy these letters so much. Years ago I realized that if I wanted to get more from my students than a simple "Hi my name is _______ and I'm from ________" I would need to structure the letter assignment and provide them with actual categories to focus on, turning the letter into more of a social location assignment. Since I changed up the assignment, I've been rewarded with extremely detailed and moving letters from students describing--in may cases--challenges and tribulations that far exceed those that any young child or young adult should have to experience.

And so many of my students express, in their letters, what a thrill and relief it is to reinvent themselves by coming to college; to step out of their pasts, as if unzipping from an unwieldy and weighty skin.

I used to always tell my students to leave their baggage at the door when they came to class. Now I've come to realize that such words are too easy, too pat. For some young people, it might be a simple enough act to shrug off their pasts, but for many of my students, it certainly is not. They would have to dig too deep, gouge too painfully at the scars. In the end, your past is a part of you, no matter how you wish it wasn't. And while reinvention can be a life-changing, life-saving move for many, you do always have to acknowledge how much of your past has made you who you are today, even if just to guarantee you won't go back.

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I've been thinking a lot about reinvention. The other day I asked L. if he wanted to stop by his old elementary school to say hi to some of the teachers. He shook his head.

"Oh no," he said. "I left that behind."

I don't know much about the self L. has created at his new middle school; he protects it fiercely. I just know that he feels better in his new skin. He feels reinvented, and that's the important thing. And while a part of me worries that he still can't wholly accept himself as the brillliant, funny, handsome, absolutely great human being he is (how many 11 year olds can?), I also know that it can take years of traveling away from your past before you can stop and look at it, and take what you need from it.