Blind memoir teacher helps Chicago seniors preserve their stories

Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites and Beth Finke knows this — she’s been teaching for more than a dozen years, after all.

© Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS  Author Beth Finke, center, teaches memoir writing class to senior citizens in Chicago on Monday, July 15, 2019. (From left) Mel Washburn, Beth Finke, Bob Eisenberg.

But Wanda, Finke will tell you unapologetically, is the exception.

“She has taught me so much,” Finke said. “She’s my favorite and the whole class knows it, and that’s OK.”

Wanda is 98 years old. She was among the first class of freshmen at all-black DuSable High School when it opened in Bronzeville in 1935, 19 years before Brown v. Board of Education declared segregated schools unconstitutional. Wanda knew Nat King Cole when he was just Nat Cole. She knew Dinah Washington as Ruth Jones and Redd Foxx as John Sanford. Classmates at DuSable, all of them.

“Wanda brings a slice of Chicago history with her,” Finke said.

Finke, 60, teaches memoir-writing classes to senior citizens. On Wednesdays, you’ll find her at the Chicago Cultural Center leading a free course sponsored by the city. (That’s the class Wanda attends.) On Mondays and Thursdays, she teaches four other classes: two in Lincoln Park, one in Printer’s Row and another in Edgewater. (You can find her schedule at bethfinke.com/memoir-classes/.)

© Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS Author Beth Finke, center, with her Seeing Eye dog Whitney, she teaches memoir writing class to senior citizens in Chicago on Monday, July 15, 2019.(From left) Michael Graff, Mel Washburn, Beth Finke, Bob Eisenberg, Pat Clickener and Marc Levenstein.

It’s a gig Finke began after writing her own memoir, “Long Time, No See” in 2003, about going blind at age 26, a complication from the Type 1 diabetes she was diagnosed with at age 7. She started seeing spots on her honeymoon in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1984. A year of treatments couldn’t save her sight.

Shortly after losing her sight, she lost her job with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s study abroad program. She struggled to adjust to a new life without sight and she struggled to find work. She signed on as a nude model for art students. She crafted stories in her head while she sat perfectly still. Eventually, she got her words down on the page.

After “Long Time, No See” was published, Finke gave a talk at Barnes and Noble at Old Orchard Mall. The following week, Joyce Gallagher, executive director of senior services for the city of Chicago, called Finke to ask if she’d teach memoir writing to seniors. Gallagher had attended Finke’s talk at Barnes and Nobel. She invited Finke to lunch to discuss the offer over egg salad sandwiches. Finke said yes.

She’s been teaching — and learning — ever since.

“Not being able to see them means when I sit there in class, I really listen and focus on what they are reading,” she said. “I picture them as the people they are describing in their essays. I don’t think about what they look like or what they aren’t able to do anymore or how old they are. I get lost in their writing.”

Her students write about grieving for spouses with whom they spent decades. They write about children who died far too young. They write about unhappy childhoods and happy childhoods and a city that has changed, dramatically, in their lifetimes.

“It’s such powerful writing and so flattering that they trust the class enough to be able to write these things down and read them and cry in class,” Finke said. “And they get to know each other and get along with each other through their stories.”

One student, Audrey, inspired by a writing prompt about letters, unboxed and pored over love letters that her parents shared after her mother moved from South Carolina to Chicago during the Great Migration. Her would-be husband, Audrey’s father, stayed in South Carolina while Audrey’s mother worked as a hotel maid in Chicago. Eventually they reunited in Chicago, married and had Audrey. Audrey has their courtship preserved in letters.

“That was kind of magical to me,” Finke said.

(I’m using students’ first names only to respect their privacy.)

One Halloween, Finke asked writers in her Edgewater class to answer, in 500 words, “What are you afraid of?” One student, in her 90s, wrote about growing up in China, where her father was a missionary.

“She and her sister are among those in Iris Chang’s acknowledgments in ‘The Rape of Nanking,’ ” Finke said. The nonfiction book details massacres and atrocities committed from 1937-1938, during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Finke wrote a second memoir, “Writing Out Loud: What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors” in 2017.

She writes about the logistics of teaching while blind. (Her computer reads emails and other texts aloud to her. She learned to type in high school and doesn’t need to see the keyboard to craft responses and edits for her students. Her computer reads back her words to her so she can check for typos and other mistakes.)

She shares her students’ work and the lessons she’s gleaned from it. She writes about Wanda. She shares excerpts from Wanda’s friend and DuSable classmate Minerva, another student from Finke’s Cultural Center classes.

“I am happy that I lived to see this year 2008 when I may cast a vote in an election I never expected to see,” Minerva wrote more than a decade ago. “Furthermore, I am very glad that Barack Obama’s grandmamma did not raise him up on a diet of humble pie like I was.”

You get the sense — talking to Finke, reading her own memoirs, watching her teach — that all of her students, quite frankly, are her favorites.

Finke has attended a handful of memorials for her students who’ve passed away. Invariably, someone stands up and reads an essay written for Finke’s class.

Death doesn’t scare Finke, she said. She’s bothered more by loneliness, grief, longing — emotions she and her students explore together.

“I think I can relate to my students better than some people can,” Finke said. “When I lost my sight at 26, it didn’t age me, but it put me in this category where certain things take me a little longer than the average person. I need more help sometimes in public than the average person. I think I can relate to this feeling of knowing you’re capable, but other people don’t see you that way. People look at you sometimes and assume you’re not capable.”

Finke offers a Beth Finke Masterclass curriculum on her website in the hopes that more people will teach memoir writing, and the hopes that more people will write their memoirs. Within the curriculum, she reminds would-be instructors why memoir writing is such an important endeavor.

Among the benefits she lists:

“Provides them a safe space to make sense of the human dynamics around them.

“Assures participants that what they have to say is worthwhile.

“Provides them with something new to discuss with friends and family — weekly writing prompts can spark new conversation.

“Helps them review and make sense of their own lives.

“Grants them permission to write the truth as they see it.”

Finke encourages her students to print out their essays and collect them in binders. She doesn’t want them lost to history. She wants her students’ families to read them.

Wanda, Finke said, takes bundles of her essays to Staples every few months and has them made into books, which she gives to her family members.

Earlier this week, I attended one of Finke’s Lincoln Park classes. Toward the beginning, the students explained why they were there, learning to write and share their stories.

“My mother, as a gift to her children, wrote her own memoir and sent it to us in letter form,” a student named Bill said. “Over a period of about 20 years, every week we’d get a new installment. And it’s one of the great treasures of my life.

“And it stimulated in me,” Bill continued, “this notion, even though I have no children, of how much a memoir can mean.”

By Heidi Stevens, Chicago Tribune

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