For those of us who maintain the student within, education come through people we meet each and every day. As I make my rounds to present two novels, it’s not surprising to find myself at the campus of a high school, college, or university. The shocker is how much of the old me returns as I find my way to a certain classroom and mingle among students.
When I was invited to speak at the 2014 Spring Writes Festival at Rio Hondo, I felt honored. Here was a college with which I had no previous connection, and it was located in Whittier, where I would need my Google map to show me the way. I accepted the invitation with deep gratitude and looked forward to spending an hour of literary discussion with young people. Little did I know that this time, the experience would speak to my heart in a way that I had not prepared for.
There’s a common belief among writers that the characters we create can sometimes influence the arc of our story. But rarely does anyone speak about the fact that no matter what a speaker prepares for, when a deep connection is established with an audience, they direct the speech.
As always, I arrived for my talk without notes. Before going to the podium I stood at the entrance and studied the crowd of over two hundred while they were reading a verse shown on the screen. Their combined soft voices sounded like a psalm, a lovely song, inviting me in to become one with them.
Deeply touched by such harmony, I stood before them and spoke from the heart. My talk no longer was focused on my novels. I told them of my old days when I used to be young. I allowed my spirit to leave the podium and sit among them, holding hands, feeling one heartbeat. I spoke to them about hope, how possible the impossible can be, and pleaded never to lose sight of a dream. Later, a few students talked to me about life’s cruelty, their immense worries along the way, and the uncertainty that awaited them. While they might have enjoyed the stories of an old traveler, I needed to absorb their young aspiration of better days to come. No one was leading the way, no one followed, for we were traveling together and learning from each other. And together, we decided to go on writing.
Connection. That is what education is about. The visit was proof that not all lessons are related to what we are educated for. In the words of Albert Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited, while imagination encircles the world.” I had gone to those students with a semblance of knowledge and experience, but in the end, it was their imagination, and the way they connected with me that taught me a lesson. Why only in spring? Let us write together throughout the year. Let our words be the hands that join us and give El Paisano a chance to be the strong line that connects us across the miles.