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Wakener Of Words For Little Pay But Lots Of Thanks, Author Virginia White Teaches Her Craft To Local Seniors

Sun., Feb. 22, 1998

Virginia White wears on her left hand a holly blue agate, a milky gemstone which matches both her white-gray hair and her soft periwinkle eyes. Easily undervalued or overlooked, the gem mirrors her life’s current path.

White looked up the holly blue agate once, in a guidebook called “Love Is The Earth.” This gemstone, it said, is used to “facilitate communication in this world…It also expedites the eradication of heartaches.”

A perfect fit.

For the last eight years, White has driven a 1978 Volvo and typed on a 1985 Tandy computer, small sacrifices for indulging in work that she loves. Nine months out of the year, she teaches four senior writers’ workshops through the Institute for Extended Learning, classes that are part writers’ training, part emotional support group.

The pay? Just under $2,000 per quarter, and all the gratitude and affection her 100 elderly students, no strangers to heartache, can bestow.

“Why I do it has nothing to do with the money,” says White, 58. “I decided if I had to live in a single room with no car and my books and nothing else, I would do it. I would teach. It’s a calling.”

This calling stretches back, way back, weaving the threads of a childhood in a family of storytellers, a personality marked by softheartedness and the endless adoption of orphaned rabbits and squirrels.

But it wasn’t until 1986, when her college professor husband left the marriage, that this path began to evolve. White, a former high school English teacher, community volunteer and mother of two grown sons, suddenly found her supports collapsing.

The home economics department at Eastern Washington University, where she’d been teaching textile history courses, was closing. The state humanities grant, which paid for her lectures on textiles as an historical women’s art form, was ending. She had no job, no marriage, and a bleak financial future.

She took long walks with Taco, her golden retriever mixs. She transformed worry into sturdy footsteps. She reached a conclusion. Even if it meant living in a shelter, White would do what made her happy.

She would teach. She would help people access their creativity.

Years passed. White’s course on women and creativity moved to Eastern’s Women’s Studies program. She trained as a hospice volunteer and served on the AIDS Network board.

Then one day, the phone rang.

A friend said, “I’m supposed to teach a writing class at Corbin Senior Center. It’s only eight students. I can’t do it. Would you want to?

And White said, “Yes.” “Where has Forever gone? Forever was always there: A wide unhurried way, reaching forward to infinity. … Now suddenly, the end of Forever is in sight.” - Elizabeth Simoons, Southside Senior Activity Center.

Virginia White started out by teaching a traditional writers’ workshop. She prepared a lesson each week and led her students in critiquing one another’s writing.

It was all wrong.

One woman asked White to honestly explain her story’s failings.

White told her.

“It broke her heart,” White recalls sadly. “I’ll never do that again.”

White read everything she could find on teaching writing. She tossed out the traditional classroom structure.

She mined her memory for alternative writing techniques, for wisdom on dealing with death and dying, for old parenting tricks.

A lesson she’d learned as a mother floated back to her.

Always tell children what they’ve done right, not what they’ve done wrong, she remembered. They’ll try even harder the next time.

Now, when her students read their pieces aloud, she listened for words that flowed, for active verbs, for nice endings with a twist.

“Oh, boy, what a nice story,” she would breathe at the end of a moving piece.

She added writing advice carefully, respectfully.

“It’s always in a way that you feel privileged that she helped you,” says Joe Meiners, a seven-year member of the writers’ workshop at Hillyard Senior Center.

“Out of nowhere into here/Words keep ringing in my ear./Some are right,/ Some are wrong,/ Some form themselves into song. … Not all the words where they belong/Some have to be juggled into place/Some, too long, just take up space.” - Estella Hanson, 83, Spokane Valley Senior Center.

The reality of White’s classes gradually emerged. Students showed up for a quarter, only to leave and reappear several years later. Others re-enrolled faithfully, one $20 quarter after another.

Along the way, they battled scary diseases - heart attack, cancer, leukemia. They nursed their spouses, watched them die.

For these aging writers, life is so precarious. One fall on the back steps, one long bout of the flu, and a faithful writing student disappears into a nursing home forever.

“A lot of my students, if they have five years left, they are lucky,” White says.

It dawned on White as she taught the class that these students, rendered vulnerable by age, most needed honor and respect.

“My first priority is to be extremely protective with them and extremely gentle with them,” White says.

Her classes grew. The one at Hillyard became the model.

White, with the beaming eyes and the apple cheeks of a well-loved teacher, draws a psychic ring around her fragile students there, protecting them with an environment of love and trust.

“There are all kinds of heartache there, but you’d never know it, because she makes everyone feel special,” says Jean Martin, a 71-yearold Hillyard member. “I wouldn’t miss that class for love or money.”

“This answers friendship for me,” says Doris Steadman, 80. “All my friends are dead. I’ve lost them all. So all my friends are right here.”

White developed a few simple ground rules, applied gently, but firmly.

“I won’t allow unkindness in my class,” she says. “I absolutely refuse to allow someone to invalidate another’s experience. That’s an absolute taboo.”

The corners of her eyes crinkle.

“You honor each other or you’re out of here,” she commands. “When you finally followed the urgings within/not knowing the reason or rhyme/weren’t you glad you stepped out in faith/and turned the corner of time?” - Hilda Kellis, Spokane Valley Senior Center.

Authenticity became the goal. White provided the tools.

Keep a journal, she urged. Practice free-writing. Allow your own voice to emerge.

“Sometimes it’s real tricky to help lead them to where the real story lies,” White says. “It’s like King Tut’s tomb.

“You’ve only gotten to the first chamber. You’ve got to find the key that unlocks this. You’ve got to find where the mummy lies.”

In class the writers read aloud poems, stories and essays. They gain insight into their lives, and when they slide off course, White patiently steers them back.

One day a writer read a pallid tale that ended with two startling sentences.

“The day the barn burned Grandma sat upstairs in her rocking chair and watched,” she wrote. “My grandfather was in the barn.”

White said, “Wait a minute. You can’t stop there.” She’d just heard a line so rich she knew an entire novel could be written around it.

The rewrite came back a new and marvelous story: A Russian immigrant woman. An arranged marriage to an older, brutal man. A harsh life of abuse and hostility.

And then, the day Grandpa’s pipe set the barn on fire, Grandma could only rock and watch. It was the day her new life was born.

The writing often leads class members, a generation of Depression and war survivors, into old traumas and horrors.

Some work through their memories. Others find the process too painful.

White makes it clear. She is a writing teacher, not a therapist.

“If it’s very painful and you don’t want to go there, don’t go there,” she says. “Just don’t.”

White gives weekly assignments. If her students seem to be going through a dark time, she’ll give a light assignment for comic relief.

Last month she passed around two golden sequins. The assignment: How did these sequins wind up in the parking lot of the senior center?

The writers brought back everything from murder mysteries to memoirs.

On a recent Monday morning, the Hillyard class read those tales. But first, inspired by the White House scandals, the class rode waves of chuckles.

“Anything goes in here except religion and politics, and this is a good time to stay away from politics,” White announced with a smile.

“Can we talk about sex?” asked a gray-haired woman in a frilly pink blouse. The room roared with laughter.

Wanita Cary read a piece about dancing the Charleston at the senior center in a gold-spangled dress.

“Boy, did I feel young again,” she said, smiling.

Then the mood of the class shifted like a kaleidoscope.

Joy Brock read a piece about the sequined dress she discovered at Value Village and spontaneously bought for her mother. She felt an internal nudge to hurry down to Bend, Ore., to hand-deliver the dress, but she listened to logic instead and mailed it.

Brock never saw her mother alive in that dress. Instead, less than a month later, her mother was buried in it.

“How I wish I had listened to ‘the still, small voice,’ and then I’d have had one last beautiful memory of the time with Mama instead of this regret,” Brock wrote.

The piece, written as a letter to a granddaughter, concluded, “My sweetheart, always listen to God’s whisper in your spirit, and learn from my mistake, then you won’t have any regrets. Love, Grandma.”

As she finished, the room stood still and silent.

“Lovely story,” White sighed. “Oh, Joy. That was excellent.”

The hardest experience for these classes, sometimes as bound as schoolchildren braving a blizzard, is the loss of a fellow writer.

It occurs once or twice a quarter, White says, and when it does, the group will spend time remembering the writer, reading a piece of his or her work aloud, and honoring that person.

Fortunately, the classes more often experience renewal.

White has watched writers’ minds spring alive as they scrawl words on paper. She’s seen subtle signs of dementia slip away, replaced by a new clarity.

“I believe that mobilizing somebody’s creativity is lifesaving,” she says. “In the case of seniors, it’s life-extending.”

When students have their writing published, as they frequently do, White reaches into a plastic bag of knitted, wooden and ceramic chickens. She awards “The Pullet Surprise.”

But that’s not the main point.

“Don’t write to get published,” she admonishes her students. “Write because you have something to say.”

In the haven White creates with her firmness and her compassion, these elderly writers find the courage to explore within.

They mine deep. Inside, they discover words shimmering and rich enough to wrap a lifetime.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo


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