The University of Redlands Creative Writing Department recently hosted a reading and reception with U of R Visiting Professor Francesca Lia Block. Block, who has authored more than 25 books of fiction, non-fiction, short stories, and poetry, is perhaps best known for Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books— included on TIME Magazine's list of 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time and National Public Radio's list of 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels.
Among the pieces Block read at the well-attended event was the recently penned “For My Students” (below).
For My Students
I hadn’t slept for more than an hour at a time for two months because of my cough, and I was worried about making the two hour commute twice a day, twice a week, because I hate to drive, always have, especially with my vision loss. But Greg had said he’d go with me, and I knew I really wanted to teach creative writing to undergraduate students at the campus with the classical, columned buildings, the miniature Greek amphitheater and softball field cradled in a grotto of green, the creek, the oaks, redwoods, pine, cypress, sycamore, palm, eucalyptus, magnolia, strawberry, and ginkgo trees, and the white bulldog kicking up her heels along the paths. The faculty and staff I had met so far were all so kind, smart, and helpful. But I hadn’t yet met my students. And then, I did.
A mermaid reclines in a plastic swimming pool. She always wears water-colors and insect-silks and paints her eyes like a bird’s feathers. She has a mer-maiden with a soft voice who reads her stories aloud for her.
A young fae with a partially shaved head sits leaned over, listening, sketching men with hedgehog heads and girls with silver hands.
A beautiful fairy and elf sit on a tree branch outside the window writing love notes in the form of stories.
A young sorceress says every word like she’s at a poetry slam and flashes her long black acrylic nails like she’s doing a magic trick.
An enchantress with pink and blue shades in her hair has the kindest eyes that often look ready to cry.
A young magician with a smile like circus lights walks on a tightrope across the classroom.
The magical daughter of a bruja writes her entrancing words in Spanish.
A young fairy wears her long locks in braids or coronets or loose around her face. She rides her white bull into my office every morning with piles of stories she has copied for me, with menus for my approval, with confirmation of books she’s ordered. “How can I help?” she says. “I’m here to help.”
A lovely young woman with shiny black hair, and braver than all of us, calmly explains to the room what vulnerability means.
A young woman wears a black denim jacket she hand-embroidered with a purple lilac and the words “Blood is thicker than water” in Chinese characters. Some day, before she becomes a famous designer, I would like to pay her to embroider a jasmine flower for my daughter and the name of my son in Chinese characters on the back of white denim.
A young woman writes her name in delicate Chinese characters on the board, and speaks her truth with care.
A young woman braids colorful rainbows to help her concentrate while I talk.
A young woman giggles like a teenager and writes like an old soul.
A young man pulls words out of his head like rabbits from a hat and sends the cupcake that the old-soul girl bought for him around the room. “Everyone’s so nice here,” he says. “Every single person. I can’t believe how nice everyone is.”
A young woman with a face placid as a lake writes dark tempests that make me shiver.
A very smart young woman brings in many colorful drawings of all her characters and seems to be able to read every emotion that crosses my face.
A very smart young person with a hat covered in colorful buttons got a tattoo with their mother.
A soft-spoken young woman who reminds me a little of myself at 18, explains that imaginary friends are just part of being a writer.
A young man who can sing like Frank Sinatra agrees.
A young woman reveals harsh truths and comforts her friends with homemade spaghetti dinners.
A young woman writes with love about her two friends—the moon and the sun.
A young man comes in late but always makes us laugh.
A young man comes in late but writes about his many life experiences like a poet.
A young man makes us worry between classes about his protagonist.
A young woman shares her deepest secrets with grace.
A young woman makes us cry.
A young woman sounds like a movie star when she reads her piece.
A young woman’s voice soothes like a best friend’s as she caresses each word.
A young man reveals that he was unable to play the sport that defined him so he created a new definition.
A young man exudes a comforting American kindness and warmth.
A young man teaches us that its okay to love unrequitedly and thrive anyway.
A young man beats out his words like the sounds of a drum.
A young woman loses almost everything that matters and keeps writing and loving and laughing.
I wake up at 5:45, shower, drink my matcha, feed my dog, and Greg and I leave by 6:45. The freeway isn’t terrible yet, except at a couple of interchanges. But once I hit the 10 toward San Bernardino, it’s smoother sailing. The purple mountains emerge in layers, gauzed with a hazy radiance. The sky holds another mountain range of white clouds. I pull off the exit and drive to downtown Redlands where I drop Greg off and get a cacao banana muffin, almond butter smoothie, or ancient grains cereal topped with pecans, dates, strawberries, and bananas.
I drive to campus and park at what is supposed to be a “distance” here, and what is prime parking in L.A.—just a short walk up to the Hall of Letters surrounded by pink and white roses and orange day lilies. The building has a red brick patio lined with balustrades leading up to a heavy, leaded glass door. I cross a strip of marble flooring, walk down the still-silent hall past the cozy plushness of the reading library and go upstairs. My borrowed office greets me with a soothing quiet and warm though still-faint morning light. The professor to whom this office belongs left some of his books, and there are so many of my favorites that it’s uncanny—Emily Bronte and Angela Carter and Joan Didion and Shirley Jackson, all alphabetized on the shelves. When I haven’t slept due to stress or my remaining cough, I sometimes make a little bed with a pillow and blanket under the wooden desk and try to nap. If someone comes by I jump up, reestablish my balance, smooth my hair, blink away the stars in my eyes, and open the door. But no matter how tired or sick I feel I can’t wait to go downstairs and see my students and read their work.
I would like to teach you, my dear students, about sympathetic character and conflict-driven plot and evocative setting and impassioned themes and how important it is to write your obsessions and tell your story in your smoothest, most natural voice, and that finding your voice and your people and your place in the world takes time but happens, it happens, and please not to confuse “lie” and “lay” and don’t look at those cell phones in class, and about the past perfect tense, and especially about how writing has saved my life and I hope it can make yours better at least, but what you might not know is how much you have taught me.
Be kind to yourselves.
Be kind to each other.
Be vigilant with your kindness.
Allow yourself to cry in front of other people.
Let others cry in front of you.
Always have tissues handy.
Ask for help when you need it.
Give help whenever you can.
Take care of each other.
Find solace in art and the imagination.
I look out my window at the amphitheater where one student goes to think, the secret garden where one student goes for comfort, the campus that one student says he’s fallen in love with like a lover. I listen to the quiet. I don’t want to ever leave. Besides my house and my own mind when I’m writing, this is the one of the only places—including my childhood home, any school I’ve ever gone to, and any job I’ve ever had—this is a place I feel that I belong—teaching these particular students, in this particular space, at this particular time in history as the world boils around us. But my beloved kids and dog are waiting for me in Los Angeles. And, my friends, spring is still to come.