Non-teachers often ask me about the state of writing and reading in schools today. I think they expect me to toss out stories about cell phones and video games and television and computers destroying teens’ attention spans. While there may be some truth to this, the state of the written word is alive and well if Writers Week at our school is any indication. Each year, we invite about a dozen writers from across the country to our campus to share their work. Students and teachers do the same. I’d thought I’d use this forum to offer a few highlights each day. I’ll list lines here and there that may not be verbatim, but I tried. If the lines don’t make sense, it’s me, my memory, my poor transcription skills. Or My-Bad for not offering enough context. (“My bad” is not something I usually say, but I’ve always wanted to. I probably didn’t use it quite correctly. Sorry.)
Day 1 Monday
Poet and freelance writer and neo-Futurist (look it up; it’s pretty cool) Mary Fons kicked the week off for us, as she’s done many times. She brings an energy at 7:30 a.m. that is unmatched. Everyone loves her. Her work holds up on the page, and she comes alive on stage.
“Poems are like jewels I keep in an imaginary box.”
“You can make a living as a writer. Writing can put you in shoes.” (She wore some high-kicking ones.)
“If you’re low on money, give a poem (for a wedding present). If you really care about someone, poems and quilts mean something.”
“Writing helps you figure things out about your own life—and about the world.”
She’ll perform at the Green Mill in Chicago on March 13th, if you want to check out her work.
Next up was Julie Halpern, author of the novel, Get Well Soon, about a teen in a mental hospital. She recently received an award from the National Alliance of Mental Illness, so her work rings true not only to teens but to professionals. Julie came to WW last year too. She’s personable and honest and self-deprecating. You can imagine being her friend. When someone asks her what she does, she rarely answers, “I’m a writer,” afraid of sounding pretentious. I know exactly what she means. I usually tell people I teach. I couldn’t be more proud of being a writer, but it’s such an exalted title for me (and apparently for Julie too) that I don’t know if I live up to it, which sounds pretentious again. Let me try this: “Writer” is a label to which I’ve always aspired. It’s a label that, to me, signifies a looking ahead. Writers can’t rest on what they’ve written. On the other hand, I believe that anyone who writes, is a writer. I feel like I’m speaking in circles. If some writer out there wants to chime in, now would be the time.
Good Halpern line: “If you’re [a teen] in a mental hospital with fifteen teens, love blooms.”
“Find how you write best. If you type fast, type. To me, it (words typed) all looks the same. When I write by hand, I can underline...”
We also had about 25 students read today. Topics ranged from a cousin’s suicide, a brother’s death, to a hilarious persuasive argument decrying the use of the school’s pulper, or garbage compacter. I feel uncomfortable listing student names here, so I’ll list some favorite lines. If you are the student and want to claim the line, please do.
In a “letter” written to a girl, a composite actually: “You’re always right, no matter how wrong you are.”
On happiness: “We have the damn right to pursue it.” I’m not doing this justice. The lead-up to the line was developed and the delivery was rousing.
A dialogue. “What do you want to do?” “I don’t know. I just want to be...We’re all part of this great museum.”
Same student, on skin color: “A teardrop from you must taste the same.”
“I felt so fragile and breakable until I realized you were fragile and breakable.”
“Hope is hard to hold.”
From a young man whose family had emigrated from Ethiopia, about a recent trip back, speaking about a boy he met: “I gave him my shoes, my socks. I took the shirt off my back.” His mother cried and said something in her native tongue: “You have become a true Ethiopian.” Quite touching.
All in all, students played with sound, rhythm, metaphor, symbolism, pacing, plotting, argument, narrative, and more. At least in my small world, I don’t worry about the demise of the art of language.