Still Awkward by Alyx Chandler
Post-grad school life is awkward and consciously humbling, in some good ways and other much harder ways. Can I afford to live alone? No. Can I even afford to live above ground, in somewhere other than a basement? Most definitely not. But am I equipped with years of therapy under my belt, a good sense of humor and at last, a confidence that energizes me? Yes.
Even today, I can be on the more awkward side, saying things a little too late, being a little too earnest. But now, I have fun with it, know how to crack people up and move on with my day. I always tell people I love growing older, and they shake their heads at me, but I truly mean it. One of my favorite parts of being in my upper-twenties is the fact that weeks and even months go by without me remembering the many, unending instances of how hard it was, how oh-so-embarrassing it was, being an anxious teen and even the years afterwards.
This is all to say that in my first month as an AmeriCorps VISTA member serving the Missoula Writing Collaborative, I once again entered the world of anxious teens.
One of my roles as a VISTA member was to create a week of poetry lesson plans for the annual Missoula Writing Collaborative’s teenager writing camp. I was also tasked to help out during camp, supporting students and devising systems to make the camp go more smoothly this year and in the future.
MWC is a nonprofit that brings professional writers in to teach poetry to students in rural, tribal and town schools across Western Montana, but each year they also host a summer camp for elementary school students called Words With Wings. A newer project, the Rattlesnake Writing Camps, gives teenagers a chance to focus on writing for a week, with more advanced approaches, readings and writing activities.
In contrast, the Words With Wings camps often exploded with exuberance, the chaos of young kids unembarrassed and being creative, playing with words and each other, writing and dancing and exploring outdoors to be inspired, then writing some more. Meanwhile, I found myself truly shaken in front of the handful of teenagers who had signed up for the Rattlesnake Writing Camp.
On my first day of observing the camp, the group of 7 teenagers stared at me and the teachers—all unsmiling, which you could tell even with their masks on, as well as one girl rolling her eyes—and I was instantly brought back to that age. Being 15. The shyness. Or worse, 14. The rage. The hormonal silence. The way my face would not only blush, but my whole chest would follow, glowing scarlet and hot for everyone to see. All the poems I wrote, the really, really angsty poems that I lived inside of. The way I was too embarrassed to talk most of the time, even to someone my age, let alone to my teachers.
Just the week before, I was surviving amidst dozens of sugar-crazed kids, but this room held a heavy silence. Even now, a month and a half later, I can recall my racing thoughts. There was no way to easily win their trust, and some of them looked like they thought nobody understood them. Yet I could tell they were scared of us, too, the people in charge, and more importantly, scared that their stories and poems weren’t good enough.
Boy, do I remember that feeling about my writing. I still have it all the time, honestly.
I remember the first time that awkward teenage spell broke for me, when I felt like I truly belonged in a group of people. It was the summer before I turned 16, and I miraculously convinced my parents to pay for me to go to a week-long writing camp for teens at the tree-filled Sewanee University in Tennessee. I was surrounded by anxious writers just like me, weird and wonderful people that made me feel talkative and interesting, people who read the same books as me and felt the same “Big Feelings,” as we called them. I wrote poems and went on adventures all week, surprised at the end when people described me as outgoing and likable—words I couldn’t believe would be associated with me. That week was one of my many introductions into the writing community, a place where I felt like I belonged, where I wanted to be brave, where I felt confidence slowly building in me.
Sure, the second day, and even the third day of the Rattlesnake Writing Camp was still awkward. It continued to fill me with empathy, remind me how hard it is to be a teenager who doesn’t feel like they quite fit in or know who they are, and then suddenly a teenager who found themselves at a close-knit writer’s camp. Over the course of the week, I was lucky enough to witness the 7 students share more and more incredible poetry and stories with us, even share some about themselves. Even though some still wouldn’t say a word in response to questions, they would read their writing with a confidence and gusto that I absolutely recognized.
At first, I tried not to be awkward in front of these wonderful teenage writers, but by the end, I think we all enjoyed each other’s awkwardness, and earnestness for what we all really love: writing, and of course, the writers that come with it.