Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Enter the Kid Wearing the Bird Head

There is one girl in my creative writing class who always rolls her eyes when we spend time writing in class. She complains that she has nothing to write about. "Oh my God!" she says. "I have nothing interesting to say!"

You know what she is? She's a big fat liar. Here's how I know that:

Two weeks ago, I opened class with a fairly simple prompt. "For five minutes," I told my class, "write about the strangest, weirdest, oddest person you've ever known. Don't censor yourself. Don't worry about grammar or mechanics. Just write."

So they did. Then I told them to tear those paragraphs out of their notebooks, fold them in half, and pass them down to me. They did. I shuffled. And then I handed the odd little paragraphs out at random so we all ended up with a character that wasn't our own.

I always write along with my students, so I'd filled a paragraph with details about a girl I went to high school with, a girl who went sort of crazy-crazy-nutso and kept this really weird journal with news clippings and drawings of martians and showed it off to a few people, and word eventually got to the principal, who then called everyone who'd seen it--including me and all my friends--into his office at separate times and asked us to describe in great detail everything we'd seen in there.

"Do you think she's dangerous?" he'd asked me.

I thought she was lonely. I thought she'd been picked on for most of our childhoods. I thought she was the daughter of a farmer and she smelled bad. I thought she tried too hard. I thought she had odd mannerisms and hair that needed washing. I thought all of this might have stemmed from those jeans she wore in fifth grade--they had little ducks embroidered on the back pockets, and fifth grade was way past the time anyone was wearing duckie-embroidered jeans.

I told our principal no, I didn't think she was dangerous. I thought she was strange. That was all.

Still, the administration feared the worst. All sorts of security measures were put into place for our graduation day. We heard there were undercover cops in the audience. We heard they were ready to spring into action at even the slightest unexpected rustle or move.

In the middle of the ceremony, after rain started pelting the roof of the auditorium, one of the seniors snuck off the bleachers on the stage and out the side door so he could shut his car windows he forget to put up before he came into school. When the auditorium door--heavy, steel--slammed shut behind him it sounded like a gun shot, and everyone jumped.

And that was the story I'd given away. I don't know who got it and I don't know if they were able to construct a story, an inner-life for that girl, but I hope so. I'm hopeful because from that prompt, I was able to do something good. Really good. And it's all because of the girl who rolls her eyes, the girl who complains she's got nothing to write about.

Her paragraph was about a boy she went to high school with. He smelled. He didn't shower. He wore clothes that didn't fit. And all of that was fine--sort of normal for high school boys, I suppose--but then the paragraph revealed the good stuff: one day he showed up to school wearing a bird head--something from a costume--over his own head. He refused to take it off, and he wore that thing to school every day.

I thought that was too good to be true. The first thing I saw in my head was a high school parking lot, that kid leaning against his car and taking a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. He lit a cigarette and then reached up with his free hand to open his beak, so he could smoke the cigarette through the costume. So I wrote that. And then I wrote a paragraph in which a very pert, preppy girl named Alexis (said with an exclamation point after it--ALEXIS!--sort of like how they said it in the old Cheri Oteri/Will Ferrell cheerleader skits) comes into homeroom to announce that Jimmy Carbone was in the parking lot wearing a bird head and that she was pretty sure he had a gun and that he was going to kill every last one of them.

It was so fun and weird to write that I felt guilty for stealing my student's good character away from her, and I told her so.

"Are you kidding?" she said, surprised. "I would never write about him. He was just some weird kid from high school."

And I was thinking, My God, Girl, we're all just weird kids from high school. Is there anyone or anything better to write about?

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