Kitchen Table Voice

Originally Published in Tuesday News April 4, 2017

“The Kitchen Table Voice (KTV) writing retreat was incredibly meaningful.” shared Christie Spessard, a member of the junior class. “The retreat provided me with an environment to draw out experiences and stories from my own life that have shaped me into the person I am today. Writing about these things in my life has provided me with the tools to craft a college essay that is true to who I am instead of something that I want colleges to think that I am. I am now ready and excited to use the college essay as a way to show colleges the person inside of me that is not my grades, test scores, and resume."

She’s referring to a seminar for juniors led recently by VMS English teacher, Kim Cope Tait, and Marisa Ferrara, the school’s college counselor. KTV represents a synergy between the two domains that helps students take the first steps in writing a college essay. The retreat, now in its second year, is designed to help students dig deep into experiences that have shaped who they are and then tell these stories in an authentic voice, similar to one they might use sitting around a kitchen table with family and friends. This dovetails perfectly with the school's college counseling philosophy that is focused on understanding one’s “authentic self” and finding colleges that are a good fit. 

The two-part Kitchen Table Voice workshops grew out of a conversation between Ms. Cope-Tait and Ms. Ferrara, who was looking for an outside expert to lead this sort of retreat last year. It turns out that Cope-Tait has been doing exactly this type of thing for many years, in groups and with individuals, and was eager to jump in. She holds an MFA in Writing and has been specifically trained in leading these types of workshops through the Amherst Writers & Artists Program under Pat Schneider. 

“Before the workshop, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to write about but I didn’t really know how to write it.” notes Dylan Hardenbergh, a senior who participated in the KTV retreat last year. “The exercises that we did during the workshop and talking to my peers allowed me to find the perspective and style that I was looking for. I think that the writing workshop was very beneficial to me because it allowed for me to find a way to write my essay that I was comfortable with and gave me enough time to write an essay that I am very happy with.”

The retreat included a series of exercises designed to help students identify departure points for writing about their lives. As an example, a “doorway” exercise asked students to think back to an experience and imagine them seeing it through a doorway between their past and present self. Meditative in nature and with eyes closed, students were prompted to think about what they saw, what they smelled, the sounds surrounding them, how they felt, and more. Back in the conscious world, eyes open, the group then put pen to paper to capture some of what they uncovered. 

“The invaluable contribution is that students become awakened to something bigger and better in themselves–a catalyst, really, for personal growth and recognizing the complexity and compelling nature of their relatively short life to date,” says Ms. Ferrara. “Authenticity is touted by college admissions. Here, students are provided an opportunity to consciously develop this quality. I believe this process/skill is essential to any rigorous college preparatory education. As part of the college counseling vision, my hope is for all students to look back on their college search and be able to acknowledge that their voice is heard and valued.” 

Reflecting on the experience herself, Ms. Cope Tait offered the following, which like Ms. Ferrara’s thoughts above, undeniably shows the intentionality, thoughtfulness, and dedication that our teachers bring to the classroom each day. 

Reflecting on the KTV Retreat

Contributed by Kim Cope Tait
The KTV Retreat and break-out sessions have come to be among my favorite experiences in the course of a VMS year. Having created and led these sessions two years in a row, Ms. Ferrara and I have had the opportunity to tailor the program to the needs of our students. It invariably yields material for college essays and supplements and, oftentimes, a completed draft before the summer preceding our students’ senior year even begins. 

The process, beginning with the retreat, in which students engage deeply and reflectively in a variety of generative writing exercises, culminates in sharing and discussing the potential of each piece offered up to the small group. It effectively demystifies the college essay as a genre. Nearly every student leaves the KTV program believing that such an essay is not only possible to create but easy to create in the sense that what is really needed, ultimately, is not cleverness, erudition, or artistry (though these may certainly be present as a by-product), but rather one’s “kitchen table voice,” the one we might use around a kitchen table with people who know and love us and have no interest in judging us. This authentic voice, we explain, is the only truly original thing one has to offer on the page. Every story has been told, every idea expressed on some level and in some form. As quoted from as far back as Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun.” The only new thing we have to offer is our true and authentic voice. And what a thing it is! 

In listening to the stories and reflections of their peers, and having their own gently received and acknowledged in turn, our students’ eyes are opened to the vast range of voices that exist and to the endless possibilities for what might constitute a “college essay.” You are all so valuable, such wonderful prospects for admission to and immersion in a college atmosphere, I tell them. All you have to do is give the admissions team a glimpse of who you are, and surrender to them the task of helping you find a perfect fit. The college essay is only one part of your admissions picture, and yet it is arguably the most genuine, the most understated in its elucidation of who you are. The artist, insisted Albert Camus, must refuse to scorn. Indeed, s/he must refuse to judge; rather, his job is to shine a light on his subject. As you are the ostensible subject of your college essay, stop fretting about selling yourself or presenting a judgment of yourself that will make you appealing in some way. Content yourself with shining a light on who you are, through your observations, through your stories, through your reflections.

This year we opened the retreat with an excerpt from the novel Siddhartha, which details a trip the young Siddharth takes in the service of Kamaswami, a businessman under whom he is to learn the ways of the world. He takes a business trip, and his planned purchase of rice is thwarted. Instead of coming directly home, Siddhartha enjoys several days in the village, cultivating new friendships and attending a wedding, entertaining the children and engaging in rich conversation. Upon his return, and in response to Kamaswami’s rage at his having wasted time and money, Siddhartha calmly explains that indeed, had it been Kamaswami on the business trip, he would have hastened angrily home, and time and money would have been wasted. He himself, however, having had no attachment to the outcome of the trip, enjoyed himself profoundly and fostered relationships that, should the opportunity to do business in their contexts arise in future, would open such doors with ease. 

In applying this anecdote to their own experience, we encouraged students to be like Siddhartha. To “travel for pleasure.” As Siddhartha says in the novel, “If not for [enjoyment], for what else?” Move in the world with an open heart and mind, so that each experience, whether or not we had the wherewithal and vision to plan it, can be embraced and integrated into our lives for better or for worse. For what else are we on this planet? We can let go of the forms of the plans we have drawn for ourselves; they have served their purposes. Now we may focus on the task at hand, which is simply to share ourselves with another. The word “essay” actually derives from the French verb “essayer,” which means “to try.” As such, the noun “essay” (or “essai” in French) simply means “an attempt.” A try. Not an attempt to persuade or impress, but an attempt to connect with another human. An attempt to take one’s own story and tell it in a way that the reader not only sees you but also some version of him or herself.

Though KTV is a special time for me to connect with students, and I value this perhaps more than any other aspect of my work at VMS, it is really a time for the students to connect with each other. To provide mutual support and encouragement in a task that might otherwise be paralyzingly daunting. It is done authentically, not in a contrived way, but rather just in listening to our peers’ early ramblings, for what else are our 10-minute free writes but seedlings that may be cultivated and grown, and saying what we remember about each other’s work, what stands out. These gentle acknowledgments of our success in the “essai” of the form are invaluable. They teach us the worth of our own stories. They illuminate the ways in which we have managed to take what is personal and make it universal, simply in our genuine telling of the thing. That is all. That is all.

I am honored each year to usher our juniors into their KTV voices, into their fearless expression through the letting go of unnatural and external pressures to instead tell their stories as they would tell them to their families around a kitchen table. In listening to each one share their musings, I am inevitably struck by the richness of human life, even in such a nascent period as this when we are only beginning to make our ways in the world. These voices are so varied, so beautiful in their real-ness. And I can see it in the faces of each one of them, hear it in their admiring comments about what resonates for them in their peers’ work, that each of these juniors is honored, too. By the collective willingness to share and to water the soil of each of our seedling stories. These grow and bloom into the images of self that will elucidate our characters and, eventually, help guide us to the institutions that will become our academic homes for the next leg of the journey. 

We are moved, we are inspired, and we are energized. We move from the small group session to the “board room,” and we take to the page again. Each student is busily typing, and reflected in their faces is a new confidence. A belief in what is possible when you dip into the “dreaming place,” the unconscious, and fish up what is true and real in your memory, in your musing. It is exciting, and it is humbling. Thank you, Classes of 2017 and 2018, for allowing me to be a tiny part of your creative journey. May you always know your worth.