One of the kids in the writing seminar I led at Francis Parker today told this story:
A few years ago, he had a tooth fall out. When his two older brothers found out, they killed his prized goldfish and put it under his pillow. When he told his parents what had happened, they didn't believe him. So he got a scissors and cut the power cord attached to his electric piano. Then he told his parents his brothers did it. They couldn't imagine he'd do that to his own piano, so this time they believed him. His brothers had to buy him a new, better piano.
Here's another one:
A big, strong-looking kid explained that he had a lot of upper body strength, but he was slow. One day at summer camp, everybody was playing baseball, and he kept hitting homeruns. Finally, the other kids got so sick of it they started playing basketball instead. But then he kept getting all the rebounds. So the kids said, "Let's play football. He's too slow for that." But in spite of being slow, he broke away for a potential touchdown. But before he could make it to the end zone, he fell in a thick patch of poison ivy. He swelled up so badly that when camp was over a few days later, his mother walked right by him at the bus stop, saying, "Where's my son?"
I heard stories today about a 5-year-old kid catching, then losing, a huge perch on his first fishing trip in the middle of the night; a friend lying to a friend about his snowboarding prowess and then getting caught; meeting Luc Longley (ex-Chicago Bulls center) in a Jacuzzi and then going body surfing with him the day he separated his shoulder (a famous incident if you're from Chicago). I heard numerous stories of physical injury—brothers flying into windshields, horses biting legs, catastrophic rollerblade crashes, putting a giant gash in a friend's forehead by swinging a club too high on the miniature golf course. And a lot of stories about girls hurting other girls' feelings and then regretting it.
The stories weren't just interesting and funny, they were extraordinarily well told. The language was colorful and vibrant, with turns of phrase you'd never find if the kids were writing instead of talking. As I listened, I became increasingly confirmed in my suspicion that kids' speaking voices contain the key to teaching them how to write. Their speech already contains the flow, creativity, and often even the good grammar that are at the heart of successful writing.
We should certainly give up on the idea that we can teach students anything by having them write essays about books. It's a completely unnatural process—who ever finishes a book and thinks, "I'd like to write an essay about that?" The natural response to a book is to talk about it, not write about it. That's why book clubs have discussions instead of writing papers.
Having students write essays about books accomplishes three things. It makes them hate writing, because it's such a fruitless, uninteresting assignment. It makes them hate reading, because even books they enjoy are turned against them. And it probably makes them hate thinking, because the kind of analysis they're forced to do is so strained and dull.
What other choices are there? Plenty. When kids write fiction, nonfiction about their own experiences, or think-pieces on topics like capital punishment, they usually become passionate about their subject matter. Suddenly, they want to express themselves clearly. Their hearts and minds are open. This is the point at which learning can begin.
Tomorrow, I'm giving a speech to a high-school assembly at Francis Parker. Then I'm off to Miami for my niece's bat mitzvah, to teach classes at a few schools, and to do a reading at the famed Books & Books in Coral Gables.
I'm also going to see Eric Sheldon. I met Eric in Israel the summer after our sophomore year of high school. Like a lot of the guys on our trip who were from Miami, Eric had a long, dangling feather earring, he was tan, he listened to Kenny Loggins—just a different species, as far as I was concerned.
I visited him in Florida during our junior year. The day I got there, we went out to his swimming pool with his mother. Eric got up on the diving board, took off his shirt, his pants, and then his underpants. He stood there stark naked, smiling, his arms out to the side as he waited to dive. His mother said to me," Well, what can I do?" And Eric dove in.
To this day, the idea of stripping shamelessly in front of your mother is my definition of what it means to be uninhibited. I've never stopped aspiring towards it.
(Don't worry, Mom, I'm still a long way away.) I haven't seen Eric since we were teen-agers. But I hope he's kept that beautiful, free part of who he was.