Faculty Voice: Steven Bertozzi

steven-bertozzi-ms-20170914_071My father loves to tell the story of my first journal. I was in second grade, and every day the teacher asked the class to spend some time responding to various prompts. Regardless of what I was meant to be writing, my entries never veered far from the following:

Monday: “Today, I am getting a dog”

Tuesday: “My parents promised me we are finally going to pick up a dog”

Wednesday: “Here is a sketch of the dog I am getting today [insert four-legged stick figure]”

Thursday: “Last night, I spent two hours making a list of my favorite dog breeds”

Friday: “Today’s the day!”

And so on, week after week…for too long.  

Only after my appropriately concerned teacher showed these numerous entries to my parents, did they finally understand and appreciate the depths of my canine obsession.

Twenty-three years later, of course many aspects of my life look different (yes, as I remind my students daily, I have a dog!), but one thing that I hadn’t expected to remain constant was the satisfaction I find in keeping a journal. The consistency, layout and format of these journals has evolved over time. In middle school, I covered the fronts and backs with messy collages of magazine cutouts demonstrating different elements of my identity. I wrote poems, sketched, and, more often than not, complained about my big sister.

In high school, I moved away from lengthier, train-of-thought entries and, instead, had a small notebook that I filled with meaningful dates in my life. For a time, I also kept a journal of ideas for movies, novels, and tv pilots that I was convinced would propel me to stardom. During my junior year abroad in college, I started journaling as a way of record-keeping; I wanted to be able to recall as many specific details as possible from my time in the UK. In one notebook, I kept track of every purchase I made (on January 23, 2008, for example, I spent £5.50 on “cake and popcorn,” which could’ve just as easily been a purchase on January 23, 2018), and in another, I kept a running log of each day’s events. A few summers later, on a 10,336-mile road trip around the US, a friend and I kept a meticulous account of our daily adventures, making note of every campground, restaurant, and landmark we visited.

The latest iteration is the one that has stuck the longest. Just before our 25th birthdays, one of my dearest friends from grad school and I decided that we would commit to a daily routine until we turn 50. We settled on the idea of sentence journals: we’d write at least one sentence each day for 25 years. Entries could be highlights, reflections, humorous observations—there were no restrictions. Sentences just needed to be true to the experiences or emotions of each particular day. While my friend’s journals are written in beautiful, small print cursive, mine are noticeably… less beautiful; my handwriting seems to change daily depending on my mood. Two years into the process, I came home to find the cover of one my journals hanging out of my dog’s mouth. As a result, there is a three-month period (May to August 2013) where Skylar’s bite marks have ripped right through the entries. And yet, this is still my favorite journal; it stands out awkwardly from all the others and is the perfect reminder of my love for a truly goofy creature.

Every few months, I find myself reading back through old entries. Sometimes I’m curious about what I did on a particular day, or I want to be reminded of how something made me feel. And when I do take the time to look back, I am just as fascinated by recurring patterns as I am by glaring differences. Often these are wonderful, and occasionally they’re cringeworthy. But I’ve learned over time not to value certain entries over others or to judge myself for what I’ve written.  My journals cover life events to world events and great meals to great loves. I often wonder who, if anyone, will ever read them. Probably no one. I imagine that one day they might be lost in a move or accidentally thrown out. Perhaps a grandchild might decide they make a good show-and-tell exhibit. And even though I can’t quite articulate a clear purpose for why I feel so committed to journaling, I am proud to have a record that is, if nothing else, an authentic reflection of me.

At the start of the year, I gave each one of my advisees a small notebook to decorate, and I encouraged them to consider keeping a sentence journal of their own. Too often, middle schoolers receive messages from society telling them to hurry up and become an adult. If anything, I would argue, middle school is a time to slow down. Every day, I witness students supporting one another, solving problems, engaging in complex discussions, and taking risks in ways that never cease to amaze me. And yes, of course, middle school can be messy, and frustrating, and overwhelming, but that, too, is no less important or valuable. Personally, journaling has helped me not only to find my voice but to know it.

Earlier this week, I called my father and asked if he could read me some of my old entries from journals that are still stored in a closet at his house. We laughed together as he read aloud some of my old movie reviews from when I was in sixth grade. So much of the humor and joy that comes from reading old entries is in reflecting on how much has changed and how seriously I took myself at such a young age. But then, every once in awhile, I’ll stumble upon a line that resonates with me now just as much as it did the day I wrote it. My memory will flash back to everything I felt, thought and saw in that moment. And that is the experience I want for our middle schoolers—because they deserve it.