Lifelong Learning: Writing and Trauma in the First-Year Experience

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Written with guest blogger Steve Cormany.

For this month’s post, I have asked my life partner, Steve Cormany, a writer and retired writing teacher, for an oral history of his first published piece of writing. His first publication was written under personally traumatic and historically tragic circumstances in 1970, one day after the Ohio National Guard killed four students at Kent State University, where Steve was a nineteen-year-old first-year college student.

In our home, as in many others, we are following the devastating developments at the US border with Mexico. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is arresting adults who are legally seeking asylum in the US. ICE has separated the adults from their children, and both children and their parents are incarcerated as they await immigration hearings. Steve and I wonder together what we can do, and what role writing might play.

In the course of our discussions, I invited Steve to tell me about what writing meant to him after the Kent State killings. We hoped that revisiting this event through writing would provide historical context for teachers and students to address current events, and the trauma invoked in our deeply embodied experiences.

To help Steve shape his response, I asked him to revisit the details of his writing process. My thought was that focusing on the writing would allow him to concentrate on providing concrete description. Similarly, in the classroom, I often suggest that students pay attention to specific detail as a means to develop their writing. I posed four questions that could be applicable to framing oral histories, or any assignment that invites students to consider a significant piece of their own writing.  

  1. What did you write and where and when did you write it?
  2. Who asked you to write it?
  3. Why did they ask?
  4. What were the results? How did you and your audience respond?

While the questions are simple, they allow writers to practice 5Ws + H, a basic journalistic process for evoking details which, by addressing kairos - or context and circumstances - also can serve to invoke ethos and emotion.

Here is Steve’s story.

On May 4th, 1970, the Ohio National Guard killed four students at Kent State University in northeast Ohio. The students were killed at a campus protest against the Vietnam War. As a first-year student at Kent State, I was an eyewitness to the killings, and the next evening, I was asked to write a brief newspaper column about what I had experienced.

I had come home from Kent because the campus was closed, and I was trying to talk with my friends at home about what had happened. All of us thought that the killings were legally and morally wrong. We were expressing our thoughts in response to a local television show. The reporters on the show also were against what the Ohio National Guard had done. However, viewers in the Cleveland area had called into the show to say that more of the students should have been shot because the students were troublemakers.

One of my friends who attended a nearby small liberal arts college invited me to a meeting of the college newspaper’s staff about the Kent State killings. My friend took me to the newspaper office where that evening, May 5th, 1970, I wrote a column for the next day’s campus newspaper.

I was excited to do this. It was to be a short piece, about 300 words, and it needed to be written by the deadline. It took me an hour to compose, while my friend, a reporter for the newspaper, was anxious for me to finish because he needed to drive both of us back home. Despite having to wait longer than he wished, my friend was pleased with the results and the column was published the following day, on May 6th.

It felt really good to publish this writing, even euphoric, because it was my dream to become a writer, and the column was on something that was very serious. I had tried to offer a detailed narrative of what I had experienced. People that I spoke with afterward liked what I had written because it addressed an important subject. They said that the column was very direct and didn’t mince words.

I felt gratified by this feedback, but I had written about an ongoing catastrophe. I felt conflicted about whether or not I did a fair job of describing what happened. It was difficult to recount the events because I was still in shock.

If the writing changed anything, it was inside the writer. It gave me some confidence in myself and confidence to write. Many years afterward, I earned a PhD in twentieth-century American literature, and I taught college classes in first-year writing and literature for twenty-five years. In the wake of my own horrific first-year experience, it is important for me to give back to others. That is why I agreed to tell this story, although it has not been easy.


Guest blogger Steve Cormany with life partner Susan Naomi Bernstein and their cat Destiny.

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.