Making the Most of Moments that Matter

James M. Loy, Miami University 

I am sitting in a cozy office, surrounded by books and manuscripts, speaking with Dr. Tom Romano, Miami University John Heckert Professor of Literacy. We’re talking about the craft of writing and about literacy, and about the possibilities they hold, when somehow the topic of early childhood memories comes up.

I describe the small town library that my father loved so much, and how the cold winter winds would rip across the lonely Illinois cornfields outside. I tell him how the librarian would let me sit behind her desk and stamp due dates in books, and how my mom would give her an early Christmas gift after noticing how an ice covered windshield had ruined her only credit card. 

On the way home, my dad would turn to me and say, “That’s a Carnegie library.” He seemed so proud of that. I don’t know how many times he said it. But it was enough for me to remember it now, vividly, in Dr. Romano’s office.

“You’ve got indelible moments there!” he says.

Indelible moments. We all have them. And it’s a concept that Romano speaks about openly and often, and with a respect befitting the grip such experiences can have on our lives. 

“There are these moments that have imprinted themselves on our brains, that we never forget,” says Romano. “Those are powerful memories and moments to write about. And I want to get my students to think about those times, rendering that moment, so it is real, and then exploring it. What does it mean?”

As a prolific and lifelong writer himself, Romano not only mines such events to inform his own creative non-fiction. They are also woven throughout his courses, which primarily engage Miami students who hope to become future English and elementary teachers, or even those who simply wish to become better writers. Here, indelible moments are often used as staring points, a way to spark intellectual and literary growth by giving students the tools to wield language in creative and sometimes unexpected new ways.

“A lot of students hold back,” he says. “A lot of students aren’t honest about things. I want to get them to be loose, to forget about the strictures, and about who might be judging their writing right away. Just write. And then we’ll work with that.”

His latest book, Write What Matters: For Yourself, For Others, is also filled with poignant reflections and helpful habits that display a reverence for language that is both inspiring and contagious. It’s an edifying guide through the world of writing designed to help anyone connect with their words.

“I wrote the book to give a lift to people who want to write, but think, ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m not as good as so and so,’” says Romano. “So it is a book to give them a lift. I write about things that could help your writing be better.” 

Tom RomanoAs a professor in Miami’s College of Education, Health and Society, Romano provides his students with the same level of support and mentorship. When choosing which ideas to express and analyze, they are always encouraged to think through those times that have been pivotal in one way or another.

“I like to say that students can write out of the countryside of the soul,” Romano says. And his students have written about family members struggling with various disabilities, about times when they knew they should have spoken up about a social injustice, but didn’t, about wrestling with the darker aspects of their own past, and many other experiences that have hit similarly close to home. 

And because many of Romano’s students are education majors, they also often write about inspiring teachers or about times they felt empowered by certain classroom experiences -- the kind that many hope to emulate for their own students one day.

For some, however, it’s not always the positive moments that resonate the most.

Ellen Stenstrom, a Miami English literature and education major, wrote about the moments leading up to her failed ambitions to attend Harvard.

In her story titled, “The Teacher that Broke Me,” Stenstrom details an obsession to achieve, her ultimate struggle with calculus, and her confrontation with an indifferent teacher who unsympathetically disregarded her increasingly desperate attempts to connect with the material.

“I’ve only begun to piece myself back together,” she writes in the piece. It’s a revealing story filled with acceptance and a newfound personal awareness, which foreshadows many of the negative qualities that she promises to avoid as a future educator herself.

Stenstrom, along with fellow classmate, Kylea Gambill, a Miami early childhood education major, each had their stories accepted at this spring’s Ohio Council of Teachers of English Language Arts (OCTELA) conference, where they presented their work alongside Romano.

“I said a little bit about the idea of indelible moments, and then Kylie presented and told her story and then Ellen told her story,” he says. “It was just great to see them strutting their stuff about something that was very important to them.” 

Stenstrom’s story was also published in a recent issue of The Ohio Journal of English Language Arts (OJELA) and Gambill’s piece found a home in the Miami Student Magazine.

Both projects exemplify how Romano approaches student writings as more than just assignments. They are deeper explorations of meaning and memory that can live beyond the classroom walls. With a good amount of patience and perseverance, they also highlight what is possible to achieve.

Writing is often viewed as a difficult skill to cultivate, and one that’s potentially even harder to teach. Figuring out the nuances of voice and tone and style and structure can be intimidating and frustrating to those who see it as an either-you-have-it-or-you-don’t kind of talent. 

But Romano has never seen writing this way.

“People can become better writers,” he says. “You can learn the craft. I know. I’ve seen it for 40 some years now.” And that is a lesson that more might heed. 

After all, when faced with all the brilliant works of those who are already so clearly masters, it can be daunting for burgeoning writers to believe that they too have something to add to such an expansive and intricately woven literacy tapestry.

But for those who face this particular hesitation, Romano continues to offer his inimitable blend of encouragement and wisdom.

“Come on,” he says. “Writing isn’t just for them. It is for all of us.” 

This is also the kind of sentiment, I realize, that I would also like to convey to my father. And as that thought floats by, sitting here in this cozy office, it’s enough to make me wonder if I’m actually sitting inside an entirely new indelible moment while talking about an old one.

“What did he do for a living?” Romano asks. 

“He’s actually a teacher now,” I say. “Both my parents are. But my dad also wanted to be a writer. It’s why he loved our little library so much.” 

At night, after we got home, he would spend hours typing away. He worked on at least one unpublished novel and dozens of short stories that still sit, as a yellowing stack of dog-eared pages, buried in a closet of the house where I grew up. 

He stopped, I remember, about the same time he voiced frustration with an inability to write with the haunting and eerie eloquence of Poe or Lovecraft. At the time, I did not have much encouragement to offer.

But I wish I could have expressed to him then, what Dr. Romano has made even clearer to me now. That writing is for all of us. 

But there is still time.

Perhaps the moment hasn’t yet entirely passed.