Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Woods Lake Magnet School for the Arts, Kalamazoo, 2004

The kids decided that Ph.D. stood for “Player Hater Degree” and it seemed plausible to them that Daisy would pursue one. Funny how kids’ minds work. I was the heavy in that room, the disciplinarian, the one reminding them about appropriate behavior. Daisy was the one they walked all over. I got their respect. She got the “Player Hater Degree.”

Plus, she’d lived in this city for years. She’d grown up in their circumstances: a gifted kid in an impoverished district struggling to provide her a degree of enrichment, a world alien to me.

On the first day, I didn’t know what to say to the kid—eight years old, in third grade—who wrote a story he called “Pimp World.”

“Is that something you’d show to your mother?” our supervisor asked him.

Got it. I filed that response away, and pulled it out pretty often. It never stopped the stories about stolen boyfriends, promiscuous teenagers, or cussing children, but it helped. “You’re in third grade. How much do you really know about this?”

Parents, monitor what your kids watch on TV. Monitor what you say in front of them. Keep their world age appropriate, because they hear everything you say and see everything you do. If it’s not pretty in an adult, it’s really unattractive in a kid. But what do I know? Certain concepts, I was just never exposed to in elementary school. When we tried to teach dialog and conflict, we ended up with three sketches that involved girls arguing over which boys slept in which girls’ beds the night before.

The next week, I explained that “conflict” need not necessarily involve an actual argument, and reiterated the concept of appropriate material. “We’re going to try this one again, without any stories about girls fighting about where boys sleep.”

From the back of the room, the annoying performance mom, who’d argued that her barely literate second grader should join our group, except that she had to arrive late every class, because she had a voice lesson, and leave early, to attend her modeling class, became agitated. “I do not believe that material is acceptable for children.” No one had asked her to sit in on the class, either. No one else’s mom was in the room. Daisy and I bristled whenever she spoke.

“Yes,” I nodded my solidarity with adult sensibilities, even as I wished, once again, that Hollywood would discover her supremely untalented daughter and whisk them both off to California. “Some people did not understand last class. That’s why we’re doing this again.” Somehow, it was usually me at the front of the room, modulating my voice to maintain their attention. If Daisy took charge, I had to stalk around the back, directing their attention when it strayed.

The regular teachers told us our methods worked.

“They used to write a sentence or two,” one told us. “Now they’re writing paragraphs, pages, sometimes.”

Daisy and I were just another link in a long chain of graduate students to teach this class, and we winked at each other. We were better than Elaine and Reba, who’d been in charge last semester.

The group changed. Some older girls started attending once basketball season ended. They’d been in Elaine and Reba’s group, and grew surly when we expected them to do the work.

“Whatever,” these big girls, already adults in their own minds, told us, snapping their gum, rolling their eyes, and tossing their heads so their dangly earrings jingled. “Elaine and Reba let us work together.”

“Work together, yes,” I said. “You’re not working.”

“We’re brainstorming!”

“You’re gossiping.” I tapped their blank paper. “You haven’t done anything.” I tapped the third graders’ papers. “And these guys, who are three years younger than you, have already written a whole page. Get to it, or get out.”

Daisy hovered over them, her arms crossed over her chest, and glared when their conversation turned to boys, music, dancing.

“Player hater,” they whispered.

“Get to it, or get out,” I said. “Some of the people in this room are interesting in learning about writing, and you’re ruining it for them.”

The big girls refused to leave that day, but they never came back. They were so big, as big as I was.

Even the little kids existed more in the world than I ever would. They had crushes on boys, and hip hop stars. Until Daisy’s hipper, younger sister sat in with us, we had no idea what musicians they were writing about, which videos had germinated their thoughts. “You’re not really sisters,” they told Rosie, even thought Daisy and Rosie looked as much alike as two people can without actually being monozygotic twins. Rosie sat with them and helped them write their longest story yet: four little girls, and four members of their favorite boy band. A mansion. A magic fountain. Super powers. Fireworks.

We were in graduate school, eating, sleeping, drinking, breathing, and living creative writing. Teaching elementary kids acted as a release valve. They could be a trial, but they allowed us to reach back to that childish joy in writing. Daisy and I took turns sitting down and modeling behavior: scratching with number two pencils on wide-ruled sheets of paper, working through our own issues.

I still have one of my favorite stories, in which my pet dragon, Toothsome, unceremoniously devours all the irritating people in my apartment complex. We encouraged the kids to illustrate their work, and I enjoyed doing the same.

The kids stood around me, admiring my prolific output and my art, which accurately depicted the fantasy.

“Dang,” one of the kids murmured. “That dragon’s just stuffing the guy right in there.”

Quite satisfactory.

But when I found myself involved in writing, Daisy was in charge of behavioral management. The noise level rose. Kids got up out of their seats and started to run. The deeper into my story I fell, the louder the noise in the room, until, snapped from my reverie, I identified the culprits.

“Hey, Mario, what are doing on the radiator?” I snapped.

“Oh, I didn’t know you were in here.” He hopped down and scurried back to his seat.

“It shouldn’t matter whether I’m in here or not. The rules don’t change if I leave the room.” But they did change. I was not of their world, and my influence only spread so far.