Whether she’s guiding Afghan women toward the right English word to express the pain of oppression or helping Southern students discover their voice, creative writing lecturer Pat Mottola, ’87, M.S. ’90, MFA ’11, is driven by a force beyond her own talent. “My goal in life is to help people and enrich their lives,” Mottola says. “I guess I’m just a born teacher.”
Mottola — who teaches creative writing, poetry, and composition — has three Southern degrees: bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art education earned in 1987 and 1990, respectively, and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing received in 2011. She began experimenting with writing in about 2007, prompting her return to the classroom. “I thought, I love doing this, but I need to learn how to do it right. I had a lot to write about,” she says.
She originally envisioned taking only a few writing courses at Southern. But she was inspired by her first poetry teacher, the late Professor of English Will Hochman, and as time went on, her professors encouraged her to earn a degree.
After raising her children, Mottola taught art in various settings. When Southern later hired her to teach writing, it was a perfect fit, she says, building on her passion for education. She’s known as the professor who takes attendance — it counts toward students’ grades — and more notoriously as one with a strict policy of no cell phones in class. “I say, ‘If this was a job interview, you wouldn’t have a phone,’” Mottola explains. “I want the best for them.’
But once the course is underway, students find something more meaningful than texting or the internet — their own voice. The interactive, workshop-style class is conducted in small groups. As the semester goes on, Mottola loves seeing students bounce ideas off one another, gaining confidence along the way. “Students realize they have something meaningful to offer the world,” she says. “They all have something to say.”
In one of her most fulfilling teaching roles to date, Mottola was a mentor for two years through the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. The project produced a book of poetry and prose, “Washing the Dust From Our Hearts,” in which women share details of their lives under the Taliban. Because education for women in Afghanistan is discouraged, the operation was clandestine on their end. The women met at a secret location and mentoring was done online. Mottola gave the women writing prompts and feedback.
“A mentor can see in the poems/stories when the women are in danger. What can we do? I have often wanted to get on a plane and bring the writer back [to the U.S.],” Mottola says. “The most difficult thing for me is when I read about young girls — daughters or sisters, ages 12-14 — being sold to men who abuse them.”
In the introduction to the book, a woman named Pari, writes: “Writing began for me as an escape from my burqa, an escape from my most painful moments. With my pen and notebook, I had a secret place where I gave myself freedoms that were forbidden to me.”
In addition to her work at Southern, Mottola teaches poetry at Calendar House Senior Center in Southington, Conn., where she has taught art for 25 years. The seniors create museum-quality art pieces, she says. She shares that one widow, who is 89, is a marvelous artist who only recently picked up a brush because her late husband doubted her talent.
Mottola is also co-president of the Connecticut Poetry Society and an award-winning poet and artist who has written two books: “After Hours,” a collection of portrait poems of colorful characters, and “Under the Red Dress,” full of sensual imagery. She loves to write about people of all walks of life, in all situations — people in bars, family, veterans, and male/female relationships. “Everyone I meet is fascinating to me,” she says.
––for Dorothy Z.
In those days your parents didn’t always
keep you –– or your sisters. In the 1930’s
they gave you away like cheap dishes
doled out in movie theaters. Ten cents
for a movie and a porcelain plate. Forgotten
on laps, they often fell, cracked or chipped,
got left behind. Odd pieces everywhere.
Disposable –– like you, shipped to aunts, uncles,
or the Klingberg Children’s Home, New Britain,
someone who could afford to put food on your
plate. No questions asked. Poverty spawning
an incomplete set, siblings were separated,
sent away by bus or train –– Maine, Connecticut,
Kansas –– no yellow brick road, no wizard,
no ruby slippers to click together, wish yourself
— Pat Mottola
See other stories from the online issue of Southern Alumni Magazine.