stacy-plmFormer WITS writer Stacy Parker Le Melle, author of Government Girl: Young and Female in the White House (Ecco/HarperCollins) and founder of The Katrina Experience: An Oral History Project, describes what she learned in the WITS classroom and how it translates to her current work as workshop director at the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. Her essay is the first in a series of five installments where former WITS teachers tell how their WITS teaching taught them valuable life lessons.

On the Struggle to Truly Be Present

by Stacy Parker Le Melle

Be present, we’re told.  I’ve always accepted this wisdom.  However, acceptance is one thing, implementation another. As a Writers in the Schools teacher, I learned that on any given day in the classroom, if I could just be present, for a few students at least, I could call my day successful.

I don’t just mean being present as an instructor, leading my class through that day’s lesson.  That is crucial, of course.  What I really mean is being present for the one-to-one interaction, those moments spent crouched next to a desk, really trying to listen.

I think of the classrooms, the rows and rows of kids.  It takes hard work to deliver the lesson, all the while making sure there’s enough order in the room that everyone can participate.  My mind wants me in five places at once, tending to ten kids at the same time.

But split attention is weak attention.  When it’s time to write, and students have questions, or don’t know to begin, I learned that I couldn’t just repeat the directions and hope to be understood (though I often did that). I needed to really listen.  Zero in.  Focus.  Not rushing to the next raised hand, not trying to quiet the back row.  At least, not for the time it took to think through the question and respond with a thoughtful answer.

The time spent paying attention yielded results: increased trust, better developed work, more enthusiasm the next time around.

I bring the problem of presence to my current role as workshop director of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP).   I work for a nonprofit organization that connects American writers and teachers to Afghan women writers via secure online workshops.  Nearly 95% of my work is done via email.  When I feel overwhelmed, the desire is to scan emails.

But scanning is not reading.  Scanning is hoping that you’ll learn by osmosis.  I have yet to learn by osmosis. Maybe I get a feel for what is happening, but I don’t process content.  Just like in the classroom, when you must take the moment to pause, to truly listen to the one child and not the several, I now find that if I can consistently be present as I read emails then my understanding of issues facing our work deepens, as do, hopefully, my relationships with all those involved.

I reread this and my advice feels painfully obvious.  But I find it is advice I work to implement on a daily basis.

For writing teachers, there is one last benefit to presence that I wish to share: that moment you discover one of the students wrote something extraordinary.  At AWWP, we are working a Fetzer Institute-sponsored “Love and Forgiveness” project.  Many of our writers are writing on these two themes.  I will never forget how I felt when I opened Massoma’s email.  Here is a portion of her poem:

I’ve Forgiven All

My head was exploding

It was full of their talking

They talked and talked and sold me

They were happy and laughing

I was sad and crying

I had no ability to do anything

I played and was playing

But I had to go towards life

My head was exploding

It was full of new talking

They talked and talked and talked

I was not a good bride

I was not a perfect woman

Because I was thirteen

My head was exploding

It was full of their talking

They talked and talked and beat me

My head was exploding

It was full of hurts and their talking

I was a mother but with nothing

I’ve forgiven all I love my life

I move towards the future

I am happy

My head was exploding

For the moments I read and imagined Massoma, visualized what she went through, sat mesmerized by the power of her love and forgiveness, I didn’t need to push myself to focus.  The rest of the world had already fallen away.

*For more about the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, please go here:

One Response to “5 Writers Tell Us How WITS Teaching Transformed Them: Stacy Parker Le Melle”

  1. scarfonesuzanne

    I have the honor of working with Stacy Parker LeMelle in the AWWP Love and Forgiveness Workshop. She is truly present in the moment both with our Afghan writers and with her colleagues. Her radiant spirit and calm empathy make her a perfect witness to the moving and poignant writing that comes through the workshop.

    Suzanne Scarfone
    AWWP Mentor
    Writer-in-Residence, InsideOut Literary Arts Project, Detroit


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.