Writer by trade, teacher at heart

Windward Community College English instructor Susan St. John has a true passion for writing – Patrick Hascall

Windward Community College English instructor Susan St. John has a true passion for writing – Patrick Hascall

Tucked away in a corner of Mānaleo is an office filled with creativity and potential.

A towering bookshelf greets students upon entrance, stuffed with books of poetry, fiction and academic studies and work. A lone VHS copy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech rests on the shelf, a favorite when it comes to discussing tone and diction in English 100. Student papers are scattered across the desk, each one carefully analyzed, considered and annotated with a purple pen. Conference time with English instructor Susan St. John is underway.

St. John has been at WCC since fall 2012, and among students she is known as the instructor to seek out for help when working through mechanical or inspirational hurdles when writing. Novelist Ernest Hemingway once famously said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

St. John dedicates hours outside of class each week to one-on-one conferences with students, helping tailor and edit essays line by line, all the while making sure the process doesn’t get too “bloody.”

Aimee Paahao, a current student of St. John’s, says: “I appreciate her patience and understanding. She makes it easy to learn, and she helps make me feel stable.”

Teaching a variety of levels and classes ranging from developmental English and English 100 to a brand new introductory poetry course, St. John has a true passion for the work she does. Ask her on any given day what brings her back to teaching, and she’ll look at you with a dreamy smile. “The students,” she says. “I believe working with students to develop their own voices and ready them for public discourse is the greatest reward.”

According to The Aspen Institute, a not-for-profit dedicated to “foresting enlightened leadership,” 44 percent of undergraduates are currently enrolled in community colleges. In 2012, President Obama gave his full and public support of community colleges, even proposing to make them free of charge. An emphasis is being put on finding talented and inspiring instructors.

How has St. John’s time been thus far? “Fabulous!” she says. “I love the students, my colleagues, the location and the campus. I mainly love the tone and atmosphere—the openness—of this place.”

Before transitioning to WCC, St. John taught at Le Jardin Academy, located on the windward side of O’ahu. A degree in educational technology brought her to the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa—from there, she fell in love with the community that a university cultivates.

“At the college level, I think you’re really able to focus more on the teaching and the student,” St. John said.

A writer by trade, St. John grew up devouring everything from the works of Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver to Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl. Her library membership has been active since the age of four. Before learning how to write, St. John would dictate stories for her older sister to pen.

Her dreams of pursuing long-form narrative took her to the University of Oregon. Studying under the drug-infused haze of Ken Kesey, an iconic novelist and avid cannabis smoker, had her asthma begging for relief. She switched to poetry within a couple weeks of arrival and was welcomed with open arms. Since then, she’s thrived.

Thanks to St. John, an introduction to poetry class is now taught at WCC. Together, students and instructor dissect the likes of William Carlos Williams, Theodore Roethke and Walt Whitman. Writing every day is something St. John—like most writers—believes is a good thing.

“When I write every day, I’m more attentive and more appreciative, and tend to notice the oddly beautiful things more,” she says.

Good writing is something St. John feels even stronger about. “I don’t think it [writing] is going to go away any time soon,” she said. “If anything, the written word is going to become more important. As we communicate on the Internet more and more, it becomes increasingly important that we are able to convey tone.”

In a digital age where the “I Have a Dream” VHS on St. John’s bookshelf is now considered a relic, every new iThis and iThat connects us more than we ever thought humanly possible. In our pockets alone, there is more technology than the first astronauts had when landing on the moon—and we use these devices to document our lives through emojis and Snapchats. Our means of communicating and storytelling may evolve, but writing is an art form that will live on forever. In the long term, good writing can enrich our lives. St. John believes how we articulate ourselves becomes who we are.

“The way we see things reflects us. It’s how we connect.” St. John has plenty to share.


by Austin Weihmiller, Special to Ka ‘Ohana