The I-Search and the English Major

by Lynn Grimley


My first experience with college English should have been typical – it was the same general composition course required at any college or university. The professor of the course was an approachable and good-humored gentleman who frequently reminisced about his experience as an American college student during the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War. He didn’t necessarily fit the stereotypical outward appearance of an English professor, but he spoke eloquently and had an unparalleled passion for the subject. His announcement of a semester-long project brought with it a noticeable thinning of student bodies in the classroom. Admittedly, I considered joining my peers in their eager flight, but the class fit well with my schedule. The project would be a compilation of smaller research papers that focused on a topic of our choosing. It could be on any topic that mattered to us which we desired to learn more about. Thus began my journey through Professor Ken Wachsberger’s I-Search paper.

The idea of writing a thirty-page research paper was overwhelming to me, especially considering everything that was going on in my life at the time. I little expected my first English class to offer some relief from the difficulties I was facing. Since the goal of the I-Search paper was to research a topic unique to the researcher, I decided to spend my semester investigating the very issue that had become so prominent in my life. The following is a revised excerpt from the introduction of my finished I-Search paper:

One windy April afternoon, on a day that began like every day before it, a kindergarten class was having recess in the courtyard of their elementary school. The courtyard was a small and enclosed slab of cement with a few empty flower boxes lining the walls. It hardly resembled a play area suitable for an elementary school. The base of an old rusted flagpole was positioned between two of these flower boxes, and the pole extended high into the windy skies.

It was because of the high winds that afternoon that the massive pole snapped from its base and tumbled down into the courtyard where those innocent children were playing. I heard it whispered once or twice that it seemed miraculous that only one child was injured that day. It hardly seemed like a miracle to me.

I can’t begin to put into words how shattering the phone call was that informed me that my niece was the one child to be fatally injured by that fallen flagpole. On April 16th, 2007, I sat quietly in the car with my distraught mom and husband as we drove to say our final farewells to my niece, Angel. It seemed surreal to see her lying in a hospital bed with just a small bandage on her forehead, as if she were just sleeping and would wake up soon to sing us songs and make us laugh. The emotions of that day were so overwhelming that nobody could find words to speak. We shed silent tears and held each other close. I had loved my niece like she was my own, but on that windy day her life was cut short and mine was changed forever. In my mind, there was no way to reconcile the fact that my happy, healthy, and fun-loving baby girl was gone.

The weeks that followed went by in a blur of sadness and anger. I had a hard time accepting the fact that Angel was dead, and I felt as though I had lost all control over my emotions. There were no words to ease the pain during that time, and I found it difficult to be anything other than a grief-stricken zombie. I was angry. I was angry at Angel’s school for letting her outside during a wind advisory, I was angry at having to be a mom to two young boys myself when all I wanted to do was sit alone and cry, and I felt robbed out of a lifetime of memories. I was suddenly aware of the reality of death and the fragility of life.

By the time I was able to make it through a day without crying or breaking down, it had been well over a year since Angel’s death. It took months of grieving before the day came that I realized that life would go on. I felt grateful at least to have a devoted husband to support and care for me during those difficult months despite his own grief, and I had my mom, Angel’s grandmother, who had always been my very best friend. These were the people who shared in my grief, so these were the people I turned to on my very worst days.

Everybody could see that my mom was devastated by the loss of her grandchild. She told me often that she was exhausted, and I thought that she was just worn down from the grief of losing Angel. There was no way to anticipate that something was seriously wrong with her. However, just 16 months after burying my five-year-old niece, I got the crushing phone call that my mom had passed away from a massive heart attack at just 53-years-old. My best friend was dead, and I had to face that pain without her.

I was enrolled in this English class just one year after my mom’s unexpected death, and at the time I was suffering from severe panic attacks related to the trauma of losing my loved ones. What the I-Search paper did for me was push me to confront these issues in my life and ultimately seek professional help to address my grief and anxiety. By the time that semester had ended I had a finished I-Search paper, a professional diagnosis for my panic attacks, and a new-found appreciation for English studies.

I didn’t know what I wanted to study when I first enrolled at Eastern Michigan University, but the effect that the I-Search paper had on my entire life was so profound that I decided then that I wanted to major in English. Although I have enjoyed my journey through literary studies, I eventually discovered that being a part of the liberal university atmosphere is what I enjoy most of all. It is because of inspiring professors like Ken Wachsberger and the experiences that I’ve had with the university staff and my fellow classmates that I have decided to pursue a master’s degree in Higher Education Administration. I am telling this story because I feel a profound sense of gratitude for my positive experience at my university and because I will forever be a promoter for the teaching of the I-Search paper.

Eastern Michigan University's English Department senior student literary journal