---- — Writing well is difficult, even for the professionals. The famous playwright, Neil Simon, admits that “I don’t have the slightest idea of what I’m going to do ... It’s like being on a high board, looking down to a cold, chilly pool. Then I give myself a little push. The water isn’t as cold as I thought. I don’t think anyone gets writer’s block. I think fear takes over.”
All writers fear the blank page. Will I have anything interesting to say? Does anyone care what I think, anyway? Has it all been said before, and far better than I could ever hope to say it?
My sixth-grade students are no exception. The fortunate ones dive right in, convinced that the warm waters of a climate-controlled pool await them. Others stand frozen on that high board, sometimes for an entire class period, or more. They need more than “a little push.” I wind up, well, throwing them in head-first.
I doubt that Hayden, one of my students this year, is aware that he could star in a one-act play about what the writing process looks like -- hands clasped firmly on the sides of the head, pen poking out the corner of the mouth, eyes glued to the lines on the notebook paper, waiting ... waiting ... until one hand shoots into the air and permission is asked to go to the bathroom.
I feel Hayden’s pain. Delay is part of the writing game. I go to the bathroom, too. Or make some coffee, and then aimlessly browse the refrigerator. I try to never, but sometimes succumb, to a writer’s mortal enemy -- the Internet. There’s a bottomless pit of swill in cyberland to distract me from the task at hand.
On this particular day, I observed Hayden as he tackled an open-ended essay question. My students had finished reading “Freak the Mighty,” a spellbinding tale of two 13-year-old misfit boys who join forces and figuratively “slay dragons and rescue damsels in distress.” I asked my students to identify one “life lesson” or theme from the novel and support their reasoning with evidence from the story and movie version we watched in class.
After a bout of hand-wringing, hair-pulling and any number of stalling tactics, Hayden gets right to the point with this lead paragraph: “Freak the Mighty had a valuable lesson. The theme of the book was never doubt a disabled kid and what they can do.”
No dilly-dallying, no wasted words. Ok, Hayden, now prove your point.
“Kevin was small, physically disabled, and growing on the inside and not the outside. But Kevin was still so smart, he was a dictionary. He helped a learning-disabled kid and turned him into a smart kid. He stood up to mean people. Tricked a criminal to think he got sprayed in the face with a toxic spray, but still saved his friend. In the book it states, ‘Kevin, we know you have the answer because you always have the answer.’ Even Kevin’s teacher thought he was always correct.”
Later in his essay, Hayden writes, “Who knew two disabled kids could change the world around? They brought back a purse to a woman. Saved themselves. And told a gang to bug off.”
I love it when a student finds their writer’s voice, when they reject the notion that school writing must be the stodgy, constipated variety, the kind that no thoughtful reader wants to read.
Great job, Hayden. You took a swan dive off that high board. Next time, I’ll look forward to a one-and-a-half somersault in the pike position, with a twist.
John Edmondson is a teacher in Hampstead.