Saturday, January 12, 2008

I Walk the Line

Martin wants desperately to be a writer. He adopts the writer’s stance: lurking in corners, brooding over a book of verse, stealing across the parking lot to smoke a cigarette. In creative writing class, he turned in a play, not a one-act like I requested, but three acts complete with scenes and stage directions. A love story filled with temptation and doubt, a conversation with the devil, and an implied suicidal ending.

Sarah is heading into her sophomore year in college, but it was during our sophomore English class that I knew she was destined to see her words published. In a personal narrative writing assignment, she explored the anger and loss she felt by her mother’s death just three years earlier. Her figurative language so beautifully intertwined with her raw emotions. Somewhere on page three, she dropped the f-bomb.

Sam sits at the back of the first block tenth grade English class, 32 seats and all are filled. I watch his shock of red hair bob some mornings as he snaps his eyes open, fighting to say awake. For our study of myths, he handed in an 11-page hero’s cycle about an Irish dock worker forced to choose between his own identity search and the desire to avenge his father’s death, only to realize too late that he’s made the wrong decision so decides to take his life.

I see stories about the gore and violence of war each fall. I’ve participated in senior project panels where the topic was female genital mutilation. Stories about death and sex and drinking and drugs, filled with curse words and innuendos are piled in my turn-in bin each year. All this comes despite the fact that each year I engage in a very frank conversation with my students on how high school writers must walk the line between the authentic and the appropriate, between the profound and the profane, between free speech and censorship, hope and fear. In some respects, educating teenagers is perhaps the most difficult age group to teach. In middle school, parents and teachers need to shield adolescents from some of life’s most grotesque realities. As college students, no content matter is taboo. High school is a time of balance for teachers, students, and parents alike. It is a time when students are initiated into the world of adulthood, truths revealed and fantasies shattered. Students are initiated into the realities of our modern world in the hopes that they will learn from the mistakes of the generations before them. So of course as they encounter these realities, they should and will want to write about them. But how much is too much?

As part of a poetry class I took this summer offered through the PA Writing and Literature Project, I was introduced to writer Heather O’Neill. In a wonderful letter titled “On Liberating the Sixth Grade,” Heather runs headlong into this very problem as she invited into a classroom of sixth graders to teach poetry. When given little direction, students will turn in what they think is appropriate for school, and as Heather writes, “There was nothing personal in any of the poems.” But once she begins engaging the students and participants in the world and writers of merit, she finds herself in a bit of a predicament. She quips, “We’re in school. I could go to jail for letting you write that stuff.” It’s all about finding the balance. Letting you write that stuff-puts the ownership of the writing back in the teacher’s hands where lifeless poetry is born.

Teachers and students alike must learn to walk a very tight line. At the start of each creative writing assignment, I remind my students of just this idea as we have a frank discussion about the trials of being a high-school writer. I tell my students that I have no answers for them. Writers are rebels who test the limits; it is what we remember all great artists for. But in high school, students are boxed in by the teacher’s and the school’s fear of litigation. If a student mentions marijuana in an essay, he must be smoking it. Send him to the office. If a student has her main character commit suicide, she too must be contemplating suicide. Send her to the social worker. If a student uses a curse word in a short story, he is profane. Assign him a detention and call home. In a society where the threat of litigation is ever present, especially for teachers, I am stuck between the profound and the profane, between free speech and censorship, hope and fear. I don’t have any answers. I simply walk the line.
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