"Memoir must be written because each of us must possess a created version of the past. Created: that is, real in the sense of the tangible, made of the stuff of a life lived in place and in history... If we refuse to do the work of creating this personal version of the past, someone else will do it for us"(Hampl, 32).
In every adult's life there are images, events and people that shape them towards the person they are to become. Some of these chapters are fondly remembered and relayed, and others are things that we wish we could forget but cannot. We tell these stories to our friends, our children and, as teachers, we tell these stories to our students as evidence of the road we have travelled to end up where we are. For the most part we are proud of these stories that make us into our true selves, but many times we are compelled to relay a story that we are not proud of in order to illustrate our hardships and convey our ability to empathize with others. The ability to write reflectively about our past is an important step toward owning our identity. Writing about life is a process that can be at once gratifying, difficult, and cathartic. We revisit our memories and craft the pleasure and pain into a cohesive image of our past and present selves. We empower ourselves through this reflective process because we ultimately learn that we have a message to convey to our readers. Our voice and our story are important.
Exploring our personal identity is not an easy process, and it can be especially difficult for teenagers as many are still trying to define their identity. Watching high school students struggle to find their place in society can be at times entertaining and at times heartbreaking. Some students assert their individuality through the ways they dress and express themselves, some act out and rebel, and still others throw themselves into their social life hoping to be accepted by their peers. All teens go through a phase of self-exploration where they seek to define themselves through their interests, talents, and individual personality.
In an urban area the usual teenage angst can be complicated by many factors which make it more difficult for teens to define themselves. Teens from underprivileged families struggle with some very adult problems that can get in the way of their exploration of themselves. Erik Erickson determined that as teens navigate their period of identity development they observe role models, peers, and other adults to help make decisions about their values, aspirations, and social lives. If teens are supported and guided through this period they will come out having successfully established their own personal identity. If teens are not supported they will end up with role confusion. Because of the environment that many urban teens grow up in there is no guarantee that these teens will have the support they need to manage this difficult and confusing time in their development.
As teachers it is our job to help our students navigate through this time, and knowing that they might not have the necessary supports at home makes it all the more important that we consider how best to foster their identity development in our classrooms. In designing this unit, my purpose was to create an investigation into identity through literature, research and writing. Students will analyze a piece of literature with the central theme of finding identity to help inform their thinking about what it takes to make the successful transition to adulthood and how our past prepares us for our future. My choice to use memoir through which to conduct reflective reading and writing is best summarized by William Zinsser in his book
Inventing the Truth
, "Memoir is how we make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us. If a writer seriously embarks on that quest, readers will be nourished by the journey, bringing along many associations with quests of their own"(Zinsser, 6). Through reading memoir, I hope my students are inspired and encouraged by the authors who have embarked on a quest to define their identity. Through writing their own personal history, I hope my students are able to arrive at the truth of their past and the promise of their present.