In the 2020-21 school year, I was teaching 6th- through 8th-grade English at Spring Branch Academic Institute, a small public charter school created in Spring Branch I.S.D. for highly gifted students. It’s a place my teacher heart will always treasure—even during the peak of a global pandemic.
One of the benefits of having a specialized program is being able to create enrichment opportunities that go beyond the coursework. Each Friday, teachers taught a course they designed themselves. That year—while very pregnant and teaching hybrid classes all day in a mask—I created Aspiring Authors, sort of a creative writing/publishing hybrid for my voracious writers that kept us relatively socially distanced.
One Friday I introduced my students to the concept of 6-word memoirs. Even for kids with IQs well above the normal range, they quickly realized it was more difficult than it looked to convey meaning in such a short sentence.
Eventually, though, they were ready to share. One of my talented 7th graders shared this:
“Brave birds still fly through fog.”
For obvious reasons during a global pandemic, it blew us all away.
A year later, when I started working as an editor for We Are Teachers, I created this meme about Stephanie’s powerful memoir and my reaction as a teacher:
We shared it on social media. And last week, when we reshared it, it really took off.
On our Instagram account, over 139,000 likes. Over 19,000 shares. And interestingly, a ton of content creators adopting the phrase and using it for everything from Facebook posts to Instagram captions to TikToks!
The problem? They were all quoting my student as “unknown” or “anonymous.” Some didn’t believe a 7th grader could really come up with something that profound (ha!). I knew I needed to make sure the world knew who came up with those words.
And so, I reached out to my student, both to let her know about her going viral and to see if she’d be willing to give an interview. I’m honored to introduce you—with her permission as well as her parents’—to the writer behind the viral “brave birds” quote, Stephanie Shen.
Tell us a little about yourself!
I am currently a sophomore in high school, with a continuous love for reading and writing. If I’m being honest, I would say I am more of a math and science person, but literature holds a special place in my heart as well. Beyond academics, I’m involved in debate and dance, and I also enjoy drawing, listening to music, and spending time with my family! Just an average girl. As a sophomore, I am also navigating the pressures associated with college and “the adult world,” but I hope that I am on the path to embracing it.
What do you remember about the assignment?
I remember that it was the 6-word memoir assignment in our Aspiring Writers Phenomenal Fridays class. We had previously been looking for prompts on the Six-Word Memoirs contest and you had us submit one for the prompt, “Hindsight is 2020: What would you go back and tell your 2020 self if you could?”
I’m sure that online school was definitely affecting me, both mentally and emotionally, and I remember wanting to tie back the implications that “things will get better” into the prompt. If I’m being completely honest, I was embarrassed about my submission because other entries were trying to be funny or showcase a smart play on words. I was feeling shy about how sentimental my 6-word memoirs were and didn’t want people to make fun of my seriousness in such a lighthearted and casual contest. In hindsight, however, I’m happy I was able to express my thoughts and feelings the way I did.
I will admit, after finding out that the phrase was going viral, I Googled “brave birds still fly through fog” and have been scrolling the Instagram comments and other social media posts about it. It’s hard to put into words, but I just feel so touched to the point of tears (I am a very emotional person) that other people are resonating and sharing this simple phrase.
What did “brave birds still fly through fog” mean to you at the time? And what about now?
Initially, after thinking about this question, I was scared to even define the phrase. I’ve seen so many interpretations online that I feel like it will end up being different from what people have imagined—and possibly disappoint them, even.
It’s all a bit hazy to me now, but I think at the time, “brave birds still fly through fog” was about insecurities and unexpressed feelings amidst the pandemic. I was hesitant to express vulnerability in a world that was already so uncertain, and the inability to share and process the fear of the unknown left me grappling with my insecurities in isolation. The presence of “fog” acknowledges the difficulties, rather than suppressing them; but beyond that, it calls for individuals to persist in their journey past the fog and mist toward brighter horizons.
I was reading a comment on Instagram that said, “What a terrible teacher. It should be the opposite. Brave birds would obviously fly through fog. It should be scared or frightened birds.” At first, I was like, “Oh my God, this person is totally right, this 6-word memoir doesn’t make any sense.”
The more I thought about it, however, I realized that to me, this 6-word memoir is more about navigating through unclear or difficult circumstances than anything. I want to convey that facing unexpected challenges and periods of uncertainty with courage is not just an admirable act; it’s an intrinsic part of the human journey. This might sound a bit cliché, but even in the most challenging circumstances, there is a path forward through the “fog,” of transcending challenges with a spirit that refuses to be dimmed.
Absolutely. Plus, as Nelson Mandela said, bravery isn’t the absence of fear but the triumph over it! People from all over the world have liked, shared, and commented on the power of your words. Do you plan to keep writing?
I might sound like a broken record, but I still feel so shocked that this 6-word memoir became “viral.” A teacher told me today, “Stephanie, I haven’t seen you since you became viral!” and I was speechless. Honestly, it blows my mind to think that something I wrote has inspired people. I’m just an average person who enjoys writing for fun occasionally, and to see that it’s making a positive impact is so heartwarming.
I can’t really think of any good adjectives at the moment, so the best way I can put it is: It’s like discovering that a hobby is secretly a superpower or stumbling upon the magic ingredient in your favorite recipe. Maybe this is the unexpected plot twist in the story of my own journey? Especially because I am approaching applications for college, I do plan to practice my writing skills more often. But I also want to keep writing for fun and maybe even try giving this 6-word memoir another shot!
What do you hope people who read your 6-word memoir take away from it?
My hope is that readers extract a narrative that resonates with their own experiences. Don’t be confined by my interpretation! No matter where people are on their path, I hope they can recognize the inner fortitude that guides us. Just like a bold bird charting its course, the readers of “brave birds still fly through fog” can find solace and guidance on their own landscapes. May we all be brave birds who still fly, no matter how dense the fog.
I’m so glad I got to catch up with Stephanie and learn more about what this assignment meant to her. I know you’ll agree that we can expect to see big things from this talented, special student!