SHOP WITH MOM
I love to shop with mom
And talk to the friendly grocer
And help her make the list
Seems to make us closer.
—Nellie, age 11
When they are
in the street
they pass it
along to each
other but when
they see the
police they would
run some would
just stand still
and be beat
so pity ful
that they want
—Mary, age 11
Nellie’s poem received high praise. Her teacher liked the rhyme “closer” and “grocer,” and thought she said a great deal in four lines. Most of all the teacher was pleased that Nellie expressed such a pleasant and healthy thought. Nellie’s poem was published in the school paper. I was moved and excited by Mary’s poem and made the mistake of showing it to the teacher who edited the school newspaper. She was horrified. First of all, she informed me, Mary couldn’t possibly know what junkies were, and, moreover, the other children wouldn’t be interested in such a poem. There weren’t any rhymes or clearly discernible meter. The word “pityful” was split up incorrectly, “be beat” wasn’t proper English and, finally, it wasn’t really poetry but just the ramblings of a disturbed girl.
My initial reaction was outrage—what did she know about poetry, or about Mary? But it is too easy to be cruel about the ignorance that is so characteristic of the schools today. That teacher did believe that she knew what poetry was, and that there was a correct language in which it was expressed. Her attitude towards the correctness of language and the form of poetry was in a way identical to her attitude towards what sentiments good children’s poems ought to express. Yet language is not static, nor is it possible a priori to establish rules governing what can or cannot be written any more than it is possible to establish rules governing what can or cannot be felt.
NOT LONG AGO when I was teaching a class of remote, resistant children in a Harlem school, as an experiment, I asked these children to write. I had no great expectations. I had been told that the children were from one to three years behind in reading, that they came from “deprived” and “disadvantaged” homes and were ignorant of the language of the schools. I had also been told that their vocabulary was limited, that they couldn’t make abstractions, were not introspective, oriented to physical rather than mental activity. Other teachers in the school called the children “them” and spoke of teaching as a thankless military task. I couldn’t accept this mythology; I wanted my pupils to tell me about themselves. For reasons that were hardly literary I set out to explore the possibilities of teaching language, literature, and writing in ways that would enable children to speak about what they felt they were not allowed to acknowledge publicly. Much to my surprise the children wrote a great deal; and they invented their own language to do so. Only a very small number of the children had what can be called “talent,” and many of them had only a single story to write and rewrite; yet almost all of them responded, and seemed to become more alive through their writing. The results of some of this exploration are presented here.
I have subsequently discovered other teachers who have explored language and literature with their pupils in this way, with results no less dramatic. The children we have taught ranged from the pre-school years to high school, from lower-class ghetto children to upper-class suburban ones. There are few teaching techniques that we share in common, and no philosophy of education that binds us. Some of these teachers have tight, carefully controlled classrooms; others care less for order and more for invention. There are Deweyites, traditionalists, classicists—a large range of educational philosophies and teaching styles. If there is anything common to our work it is the concern to listen to what the children have to say and the ability to respond to it as honestly as possible, no matter how painful it may be to our teacherly prides and preconceptions. We have allowed ourselves to learn from our pupils and to expect the unexpected.
Children will not write if they are afraid to talk. Initially they suspect teachers and are reluctant to be honest with them. They have had too many experiences where the loyalties of the staff and the institutional obligations of teachers have taken precedence over honesty. They have seen too much effort to maintain face, and too little respect for justifiable defiance in their school lives. I think children believe that there is a conscious collusion between all of the adults in a school to maintain the impression that the authority is always right, and that life is always pleasant and orderly. Unfortunately, the collusion is unconscious or at least unspoken. This is dramatically true in slum schools where the pressures of teaching are increased by understaffing and a vague uneasiness about race which is always in the air.
I was assigned to a school in East Harlem in September 1962 and was not sufficiently prepared for the faculty’s polite lies about their success in the classroom or the resistance and defiance of the children. My sixth-grade class had thirty-six pupils, all Negro. For two months I taught in virtual isolation from my pupils. Every attempt I made to develop rapport was coldly rejected. The theme of work scheduled by the school’s lesson plan for that semester was “How We Became Modern America,” and my first lesson was characteristic of the dull response everything received.
It seemed natural to start by comparing a pioneer home with the modern life the children knew—or, more accurately, I thought they knew. I asked the class to think of America in the 1850s and received blank stares, although that presumably was what they had studied the previous year. I pursued the matter.
—Can anyone tell me what was happening around 1850, just before the Civil War? I mean, what do you think you’d see if you walked down Madison Avenue then?
—Do you think there were cars in 1850? That was over a hundred years ago. Think of what you learned last year and try again, do you think there were cars then?
—Yes…no…I don’t know. Someone else tried.
—Grass and trees?
The class broke out laughing. I tried to contain my anger and frustration.
—I don’t know what you’re laughing about, it’s the right answer. In those days Harlem was farmland with fields and trees and a few farmhouses. There weren’t any roads or houses like the ones outside, or street lights or electricity.
The class was outraged and refused to think. Bright faces took on the dull glaze that is characteristic of the Negro child who finds it less painful to be thought stupid than to be defiant. There was an uneasy drumming on desk tops. The possibility of there being a time when Harlem didn’t exist had never, could never have occurred to the children. Nor did it occur to me that their experience of modern America was not what I had come to teach about. After two months, in despair, I asked the kids to write about their block.
WHAT A BLOCK!
My block is the most terrible block I’ve ever seen. There are at lease 25 or 30 narcartic people in my block. The cops come around there and tries to act bad but I bet inside of them they are as scared as can be. They even had in the papers that this block is the worst block, not in Manhattan but in New York City. In the summer they don’t do nothing except shooting, shabing, and fighting. They hang all over the stoops and when you say excuse me to them they hear you but they just don’t feel like moving. Some times they make me so mad that I feel like slaping them and stuffing and bag of garbage down their throats. Theres only one policeman who can handle these people and we all call him “Sunny.” When he come around in his cop car the people run around the corners, and he wont let anyone sit on the stoops. If you don’t believe this story come around some time and you’ll find out.
—Grace, age 11
My block is the worse block you ever saw people getting killed or stabbed men and women in buildin’s taking dope…
—Mary, age 11
I live on 117 street, between Madison and 5th avenue. All the bums live around here. But the truth is they don’t live here they just hang around the street. All the kids call it “Junky’s Paradise.”
—James, age 12
My block is a dirty crumby block!
—Clarence, age 12
THE NEXT DAY I threw out my notes and my lesson plans and talked to the children. What I had been assigned to teach seemed, in any case, an unreal myth about a country that never has existed. I didn’t believe the tale of “progress” the curriculum had prescribed, yet had been afraid to discard it and had been willing to lie to the children. After all I didn’t want to burden them or cause them pain, and I had to teach something. I couldn’t “waste their time.” How scared I must have been when I started teaching in Harlem to accept those hollow rationalizations and use the “curriculum” to protect me from the children. I accepted the myth that the teacher and the book know all; that complex human questions had “right” and “wrong” answers. It was much easier than facing the world the children perceived and attempting to cope with it. I could lean on the teachers’ manuals and feel justified in presenting an unambiguously “good” historical event or short story. It protected my authority as a teacher which I didn’t quite believe in. It was difficult for me; pontificating during the day and knowing that I was doing so at night. Yet could I cause the class much more pain or impose greater burdens with my lies than they already had? How much time could I have “wasted” even if I let the children dance and play all day while I sought for a new approach. They had already wasted five years in school by the time they arrived in my class.
So we spoke. At first the children were suspicious and ashamed of what they’d written. But as I listened and allowed them to talk they became bolder and angrier, then finally quieter and relieved. I asked them to write down what they would do to change things, and they responded immediately.
If I could change my block I would stand on Madison Ave and throw nothing but Teargas in it. I would have all the people I liked to get out of the block and then I would become very tall and have big hands and with my big hands I would take all of the narcartic people and pick them up with my hand and throw them in the nearest river and oceans. I would go to some of those old smart alic cops and throw them in the Ocians and Rivers too. I would let the people I like move into the projects so they could tell their friends that they live in a decent block. If I could do this you would never see 117 st again.
—Grace, age 11
If I could change my block I would put all the bums on an Island where they can work there. I would give them lots of food. But I wouldn’t let no whiskey be brought to them. After a year I would ship them to new York and make them clean up junk in these back yard and make them maybe make a baseball diamond and put swings basketball courts etc.
—Clarence, age 12
For several weeks after that the children wrote and wrote—what their homes were like, whom they liked, where they came from. I discovered that everything I’d been told about the children’s language was irrelevant. Yes, they were hip when they spoke, inarticulate and concrete. But their writing was something else, when they felt that no white man was judging their words, threatening their confidence and pride. They faced a blank page and wrote directly and honestly. Recently I have mentioned this to teachers who have accepted the current analyses of “the language” of the “disadvantaged.” They asked their children to write and have been as surprised as I was, and shocked by the obvious fact that “disadvantaged” children will not speak in class because they cannot trust their audience.
Nothing the school offered was relevant, so I read the class novels, stories, poems, brought my library to class and let them know that many people have suffered throughout history and that some were articulate enough to create literature from their lives. They didn’t believe me, but they were hungry to know what had been written about and what could be written about.
It was easier for the class to forget their essays than it was for me. They were eager to go beyond their block, to move out into the broader world and into themselves. We talked of families, of brothers and sisters, of uncles, and of Kenny’s favorite subject, the Tyranny of Teachers and Moms.
We spoke and read about love and madness, families, war, the birth and death of individuals and societies; and then they asked me permission to write themselves. Permission!
IN THE MIDST of one of our discussions of fathers, Shiela asked me a question that has become symbolic of my pupils’ hunger for concepts. “Mr. Kohl,” she said, “if you wanted to write something about your father that was true is there a word for it?” What she meant was that if there was a word for it she would do it, but if there wasn’t she would be scared. One names what is permissible, and denies names to what one fears. Shiela led us to talk about biography and autobiography, and she did get to write of her father.
A BIOGRAPHY OF MY FATHER
My father was born in California. He wasn’t a hero or anything like that to anyone but to me he was. He was a hard working man he wasn’t rich but he had enough money to take care of us. He was mean in a way of his own. But I loved him and he loved me. He said to my mother when he die she would feel it. My father was a man who loved his work besides if I was a man who worked as a grocery store I would love it to. He wanted his kids to grow up to be someone and be big at name. He wanted a real life. But when he died we started a real life.
The children spoke of themselves as well. They knew what they felt and sometimes could say it. Sharon came into class angry one day and wrote about a fight.
ONE DAY THERE WAS A BIG FIGHT
One day in school a girl started getting smart with a boy. So the boy said to the girl why don’t you come outside? The girl said all right I’ll be there. The girl said you just wait. And he said don’t wait me back. And so the fight was on. One had a swollen nose the other a black eye. And a teacher stoped the fight. His name was Mr. Mollow. I was saying to myself I wish they would mind their own business. It made me bad. I had wanted to see a fight that day. So I call Mr. Mollow up. I called him all kinds of names. I said you ugly skinney bony man. I was red hot. And when I saw him I rolled my eyes as if I wanted to hit him. All that afternoon I was bad at Mr. Mollow.
I tried to talk to her about her paper, tell her that “it make me bad” didn’t make any sense. And she explained to me that “being bad” was a way of acting and that down South a “bad nigger” was one who was defiant of the white man’s demands. She concluded by saying that being bad was good in a way and bad in a way. I asked the class and they agreed. In the midst of the discussion Louis asked one of his characteristically exasperating questions: “But where do words come from anyway?”
I stumbled over an answer as the uproar became general.
—What use are words anyway?
—Why do people have to talk?
—Why are there good words and bad words?
—Why aren’t you supposed to use some words in class?
—Why can’t you change words as you like?
I felt that I was being “put on,” and was tempted to pass over the questions glibly; there were no simple answers to the children’s questions, and the simplest thing to do when children ask difficult questions is to pretend that they’re not serious or they’re stupid. But the children were serious.
MORE AND MORE they asked about language and would not be put off by evasive references to the past, linguistic convention and tradition. Children look away from adults as soon as adults say that things are the way they are because they have always been that way. When a child accepts such an answer it is a good indication that he has given up and decided to be what adults would make him rather than himself.
I decided to explore language with the children, and we talked about mythology together.
I thought of Shiela’s question and Louis’s question, of Shiela’s desire to tell a story and her fear of doing it. The children rescued me. Ronald told me one day that Louis was “psyching” him and asked me to do something. I asked him what he was talking about, what he meant by “psyching.” He didn’t know, and when I asked the class they couldn’t quite say either, except that they all knew that Louis was “psyche,” as they put it. I said that Louis couldn’t be Psyche since Psyche was female. The kids laughed and asked me what I meant. I countered with the story of Cupid and Psyche and the next day followed with readings from Apuleius and C.S. Lewis. Then I talked about words that came from Psyche, psychology, psychic, psychosomatic. We even puzzled out the meaning of psyching, and one of the children asked me if there were any words from Cupid. I had never thought of cupidity in that context before, but it made sense.
From Cupid and Psyche we moved to Tantalus, the Sirens and the Odyssey. We talked of Venus and Adonis and spent a week on first Pan and panic, pan-American, then pandaemonium, and finally on daemonic and demons and devils.
Some of the children wrote myths themselves and created characters named Skyview, Missile, and Morass. George used one of the words in his first novel:
One day, in Ancient Germany, a boy was growing up. His name was Pathos. He was named after this Latin word because he had sensitive feelings.
The class began a romance with words and language that lasted all year. Slowly the children turned to writing, dissatisfied with mere passive fearning. They explored their thoughts and played with the many different forms of written expression. I freed the children of the burden of spelling and grammar while they were writing. If a child asked me to comment on the substance of his work I did not talk of the sentence structure. There is no more deadly thing a teacher can do than ignore what a child is trying to express in his writing and comment merely upon the form, neatness, and heading.1 Yet there is nothing safer if the teacher is afraid to become involved. It is not that I never taught grammar or spelling; it is rather that the teaching of grammar and spelling is not the same as the teaching of writing. Once children care about writing and see it as important to themselves they want to write well. At that moment. I found, they easily accept the discipline of learning to write correcently. Vocabulary, spelling, and grammar become the means to achieving more precise and sophisticated forms of expression and not merely empty ends in themselves.
In my class a child had permission to write whenever he felt he had to Barbara, a taciturn girl who had never written a word, put her reader down one day and wrote for fifteen minutes. Then she handed me this:
ONE COLD AND RAINY NIGHT
It was one cold and rainy night when I was walking through the park and all was in the bed. I saw a owl up in the tree. And all you could see was his eyes. He had big white and black eyes. And it was rainy and it was very very cold that night. And I only had on one thin coat. I was cold that rainy night. I was colder than that owl. I don’t know how he could sit up in that tree. It was dark in the park. And only the one who had the light was the owl. He had all the light I needed. It was rainy that stormy night. And I was all by myself. Just walking through the park on my way home. And when I got home I went to bed. And I was thinking about it all that night. And I was saying it was a cold and rainy night and all was in bed.
She explained that she had not slept and wanted to write. She only wrote occasionally after producing this paragraph. I could have encouraged her to continue writing, to build her paragraph into a story. But she didn’t want to write. She wanted to exorcise an image that particular day. A teacher does not to have to make everything educational, to “follow up” on all experiences and turn a meaningful moment into a “learning situation.” There is no need to draw conclusions or summarize what the child said. Often teachers insult their pupils and deceive themselves by commenting and judging where no comment or judgment is called for.
LARRY HAD BEEN WRITING voluminous comic book fantasies starring Batman, Robin, and the League of Justice. One day he got bored with these heroes and asked me if he could write about himself. I said of course, and so he produced a fragment of an autobiography, after which he returned to his fantasies. He said that the autobiography helped him to invent his own League and his adventurous novels became more personal. I asked him how it helped him, and he said he couldn’t say, but he knew that it did.
THE STORY OF MY LIFE Foreword
This story is about a boy named Larry and his life as it is and how it will be. Larry is in the six grade now but this story will tell about his past, present, and future. It will tell you how he lived and how he liked it or disliked it. It will tell you how important he was and happy or said he was in this world it will tell you all his thoughts. It may be pleasant and it may be horrible in place but what ever it is it will be good and exciting but! their will be horrible parts. This story will be made simple and easy but in places hard to understand. This is a nonfiction book.
Where I Was Born
In all story they beat around the bush before they tell you the story well I am not this story takes place in the Metropolitan Hospitale.
When I was born I couldn’t see at first, but like all families my father was waiting outside after a hour or so I could see shadows. The hospital was very large and their were millions of beds and plenty of people. And their were people in chairs rolling around, people in beds, and people walking around with trays with food or medicine on it. Their was people rolling people in bed and there were people bleeding crying yelling or praying I was put at a window with other babies so my father could see me their was a big glass and lots of people around me so I could see a lot of black shapes. And since I was a baby I tried to go through the glass but I didn’t succeed. All the people kept looking I got scared and cryed soon the nurse came and took all the babies back to their mothers….
George was shy and quiet and invented his own characters from the beginning. He was the class artist and drew pictures for everybody. He wrote for himself.
A JOURNEY THROUGH TIME AND SPACE
Chapter III Just a Tramp
George had been in jail for so long, that he lost everything he had. He didn’t even have a cent. “Well,” he thought, “I guess I’ll have to get a job.” He went by a restaurant and got a job as a waiter. One day, a drunky came into the restaurant and ordered some wine. George brought him his wine then after he got through drinking it out of the bottle, the drunky said, “How’s ’bout yous an’ me goin’ to a bar t’night?’ George was afraid he would lose his job if he had been caught drinking. So he said, “Get out of this restaurant, or I’ll call the manager!” With that, the drunken man hit George in the jaw with his first and knocked him down. George couldn’t take being pushed around any longer, so he got up and knocked the drunky down. The drunky got up and pulled out a knife. George grabbed at the knife and tried to make him drop it. They both fought for the knife knocking chairs and taking the worst beatings.
The manager was so afraid that he ran to get the police. Two policemen came in, and the minute George saw them, he knew he would have to spend another month in jail. So he jumped out the restaurant door and ran down the street. The policemen pursued George around the corner where George hid in a hallway and the police passed him. “Whew,” he panted quietly, “I’m glad they’re gone! But now, I guess, I’m just a tramp. If I leave town, it won’t do no good.” So he decided to hide in his basement ex-laboratory. He had been in jail for so long he had forgotten where it was. He strolled along the streets day and night. His clothes were getting raggety and people laughed at him. His mother taught him not to beg, even if he didn’t have a penny. And George never did beg. And kids made up a song for him:
We know a bum who walks
down the street,
In rain, or snow, or slush or
He can’t afford to do anything
’cause if you see him you’ll pop
They made lots more of him like this;
We know a tramp who walks
in the damp,
Like a dirty, stinkin’ phoney
He can’t afford no money at
Or have a great big party or
’cause he’s just a big fat slob.
And never has he gotten a job.
The kids sounded on him every day, and he never did get a decent job. But he still had his mind on being a scientist. To invent things and modernize his country.
There is no limit to the forms of writing that children will experiment with. They will readily become involved in provocative open assignments if they are convinced that the teacher does not want a correct answer to an unambiguous question, but rather to hear what they have to say. Themes such as “On Playing Around” and “Walls” do not prejudge how a child must respond. “On How Nice the Summer Is” does. The same is true for open forms of writing such as the fable or the parable. The teacher can provide the framework for many written exercises, but the substance of the children’s responses must be drawn from their life and imagination.
THIS IS ONLY PART of the story, however, the part which can be attempted with a whole class. It is much more difficult to encourage each child to seek his own voice, and to accept the fact that not everyone will have a literary one. It is a mistake to assume that all children have the energy and devotion necessary to write novels or poems. Children select the forms they are most comfortable with, and therefore it is not easy to teach writing. One cannot teach a sixth-grade class to write novels. The best that can be done is to reveal novels to them and be ready to teach those who want to do more than read. I never made “creative writing” compulsory because it cannot be made compulsory. Writing must be taught qualitatively—how can one best express oneself, in what way? I found that the children understood these most complex questions, and took great pleasure in listening to the various voices of their classmates.
For example, after I read Aesop’s fables to my class and we had talked about them, they wrote fables of their own.
Once upon a time there was a pig and a cat. The cat kept saying old dirty pig who want to eat you. And the pig replied when I die I’ll be made use of, but when you die you’ll just rot. The cat always thought he was better than the pig. When the pig died he was used as food for the people to eat. When the cat died he was bured in old dirt.
Moral: Live dirty die clean.
—Barbara, age 11
Once a boy was standing on a huge metal flattening machine. The flattener was coming down slowly. Now this boy was a boy who love insects and bugs. The boy could have stopped the machine from coming down but there were two ladie bugs on the button and in order to push the button he would kill the two ladie bugs. The flattener was about a half inch over his head now he made a decision he would have to kill the ladie bugs he quickly pressed the button. The machine stoped he was saved and the ladie bugs were dead.
Moral: smash or be smashed
—Kenneth, age 11
In writings of this sort we can sense the exhilaration felt by children in saying things that might have been out of bounds in the atmosphere of the conventional classroom. In fact the conventional classroom itself sometimes becomes the subject of their essays.2
WHY DO RUSSIANS PLANT TREES?
Children sit in classroom waiting for teacher to come. Teacher walks in. Writes on the board. Question is, Why do Russians plant trees?
Some answers are, They plant trees to hide their artillery; To hide their cruelty to the people; So we can’t see their secret weapons.
Teacher writes wrong on all. Real answer is Russians plant trees because trees are pretty.
WE CAN TEACH EACH OTHER
Inside I feel like I am a nice person; but I have to act like one too. I have to know what kind of person I am. Sometimes, I forget that other people have feelings. Teachers for example; sometimes I hurt them without knowing it. I can say or do something that is so hurtful that they can’t say anything but, “Get up and get out.” They say this so they can go on and teach the rest of us a lesson. But Teachers can hurt you too and they do it just to teach you a lesson.
You are a child of learning in some ways, but in other ways children teach teachers. I don’t know what a teacher is like or how she feels, just like a teacher doesn’t really know what I’m like or how I feel. So I can teach her what and how I think and feel. Teachers have been children before, but they seem to forget what it’s like because the time changes in the way that the weather changes. So they can’t say, well it’s like when I was a child.
No, it’s not like that, because people are changing and our minds are changing too. So children teach teachers a new lesson, about children today.
WITH SOME CHILDREN it is more difficult to see the potential. I once had a young Puerto Rican boy in a sixthgrade class. He was shy, and according to the record had an IQ of 79 and was illiterate. He listened intensely in class when I taught reading, otherwise he seemed to be somewhere else. He never spoke in class; yet after the Christmas holiday he came to me and told me that I had taught him how to read. It seemed that the idea that words were divided into syllables excited him, and so over the Christmas vacation he divided all the names under “A” in the phone book into syllables and learned how to read. I was astonished at his excitement over a fact of grammar that seemed dull and matter-of-fact to me. I encouraged Carlos to write, and for all his struggle with the English language a beautiful, sad world emerged:
One cold rainy day I was going to school and I had to go 1,000 miles to get there and there wasn’t no cars and no buses and train so I had to walk. I got soke a wet. I still had 500 more miles to go at last I almost got there and went I got there the school was close and I thought for a minute and then I remember it was a haliday and then I droped deid.
It rains too much and my flowers vegetable and gardens they get too much water. I got to think of something fast because if it keeps on like this my plants can’t grow. So one day I was walking in the street when I saw this store selling rain supplies so I went in and got some then I went back home and I had one that will just rite rain so I planted in the ground and the next day I couldn’t believe my eyes all the plants were just growing up. So I live happly ever after.
I just don’t like to think because every time I think I get a headache because one time I was thinking about the world fair and I build a mental picture in my mind I was enjoying myself then I stop thinking. I was going home went suddenly I felt something in my mind and I got a headache and I was criing because my mind hurt. From that day on I can’t think.
It happens every time I go to bed I forget to brush your teeth. Then the second time I forgot the third time I forgot too so I had to do something, so one day I was very sleepy I was going to my bed then sudently I open my eyes then I remember and I ran back to bath tob and I brush my teeth you didn’t got me this time so I went back to bed and then every single day I brush my teeth live happly ever after.
—Carlos, age 12
I gave Carlos books to read and encouraged him to listen to the people around him and record their speech and manner, and try to understand and capture their style. Trying to help Carlos I found there were kinds of heightened perception that supposedly “limited” children can develop as enthusiastically as they evolve their own styles of life. I feel that there are many unexplored possibilities of developing writing and perception, perhaps for the not so sensitive as well as for the hypersensitive.
Carlos still tries to write in a halfhearted manner, but he receives no encouragement. It seems that writing is not a subject given high priority at the junior high school he attends. It is more concerned to teach mathematics and science to those few children who will make it.
UP TO THIS POINT I have been primarily concerned with the writing that can be taught all children. Any significant program must also provide for those few children who not only write but write with a seriousness and intensity that is not usual. These children, even at the age of twelve, would like to become writers, and in a few cases there are children whose work shows such a stamp of individuality and such unmistakable perception and love of language that there is hope that if they are taken seriously they could become writers.
Such children pose special problems for the schools because they may not conform to the usual measure of academic success. They are not likely to be excellent scientists or mathematicians and are more than likely individualistic, somewhat withdrawn and self-sufficient. Most teachers do not know what to do with these children and are usually content to let them sit silently in their classes. If their talents are discovered they are not made much of since they are not so likely to fit into the rigid categories that the teacher judges as excellent.
The story of the last child I would like to introduce here is a sad and continuing tragic waste of human talent. Louis, a boy of eleven, passionately loved language, and whenever he was not overburdened with his personal problems he played with language with unusual mastery. I never had a pupil who absorbed words more quickly and intuitively than Louis. Nor have I had one who was so discontent with static, colorless style, or so articulate in criticizing the banal readers that are provided in the schools.
When I took Louis to see Cacoyannis’s Elektra he said, “You mean that a myth is a way of saying something about yourself, something that you can communicate to other people by telling them a story that represents what they feel, what they see as important? That means I could write my Electra, the story of me and my mother and sister only not us, but something that other people could understand and would be better than us, more beautiful, it wouldn’t hurt me so much to tell it that way.”
This story called Elektra is of the deepest passion and the deepest hope of avengence of her father’s death. Her father was called Aggememnon, Aggemomnom was the rightful ruler of Argos…He had been cruely slaughtered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus.
Louis never finished Electra. Nor did he finish The Boy in the Slums, still one of his family’s prized possessions.
THE BOY IN THE SLUMS
This story is about a boy namely me, who live in an apartment in and around the slum area. I feel that other people should be interested in what I have to say and just like me, TRY to do something about it, either by literal or diatribe means. This book is only to be read by men and women boys and girls who feel deeply serious about segregation and feel that this is no joke. Especially when you are younger you have a better opportunity to speak about and be willing to work for these problems of the slums.
1-Do you live in the slums?
2-How do you think you would feel if you did?
3-Would you rather be rich have maids and servants to take care of you while your mother is away to dinners, nightclubs, and business trips? Or would you rather be poor and your mother’d be home to Love and take care of you?
Before I wrote the last question down I made sure that at least I knew the answer, I had a decision to make also because my mother asked me that same question just a few days ago and take it from me its not easy to answer a question like that. But if just by mere curiosity you would like to know my answer to this question just open the pages of this book and read to your hearts content and do me a favor (just as a friend) tell other people about this book and may be they may be encouraged to read this Book. (Oh, by the way all through this book a word will be underlined and if by any chance you want to know what this word means just look it up in the back of this Book it is called “Louis’ Slang Dictionary”)
I-An Introduction to My Mother
I am dreaming and crying in my sleep.
I am dreaming because I have nothing better to do and crying because I am dreaming about a problem I had in school, you see I promise myself I’ll be good and try to learn more, but everytime I come into the classroom (in my dream) my teacher right then and there starts to pick on me Louis this or Louis that. So I say to myself “Enough is too much, everyday the same old problem” why that’s enough even to make a laughing hyena cry (wouldn’t you if you were in my situation?)
Just as I was about to cry in my sleep for the second time unexpectedly a hand hit me right on my rear end (I knew it was a hand because I had felt this more than once) Of course I woke up and immediately knew that it was time for my brothers and my sisters and me to get ready to go to school. My youngest sisters name is Rene she is 3 years next comes Pamela she is 8 years old, my next sister’s name is Alice. She is 9 years old, then comes my Brother who’s name is Robert he is 10, then comes me Louis I am 11 then comes my next sister Diane she is 12 years going on 13, and last but not least My Oldest Sister who’s name is Barbara she is 14. I know you’re not interested in my private life but I’ll fill you in a little way just to have something interesting to say. The first thing I have to do is head straight for the Bathe-room (PS By the way the word Bathe is just a fancy word I picked up from my teacher “Mr. Herbert Koh!”. You know I’ll let you in on a little secret, Mr. Kohl is kind of fancy himself. The reason why I’m telling you this is because my teacher told me to express myself to the fullest extent (that’s another fancy word I learned from my teacher)
And the first thing I do in the Bathe room is to wash my face and comb my hair while my mother is ironing my shirt and pants. Oh by the way my mother’s name is Mrs. Helen Frost (you can call her ma or Mrs. Helen cause that what I always call her and she doesn’t get mad either). The next thing I do is eat my breakfast which consists of two or three jelly sandwiches and a glass of water or if I’m lucky I’ll have a bowl of cereal with can milk. At this time it should be 8:30 time to go to school. P.S. 79 here I come I say as I start out of the door to my building. As I walk to the school which is within walking distance from my house I begin to think of things that could but then again couldn’t happen. For example: (Maybe someday I’ll be a scientist or a big business man or maybe even an engineer or then again the President of the United States or maybe even the mayor. As long as it is somebody important. You see! some people are lucky enough to be born important but not me I’ll have to work my way up to what I want to be (my personal opinion of the situation!) if I’m even lucky enough to get that far up as a matter of fact Ill even be lucky if I get past the sixth grade the way things are going now. If you ever get into a situation similar to mine take my advise don’t give up you have to work for your goal, don’t worry you’ll never be alone in your problems other people just like you are sharing your same problems.
I feel I have to close this chapter now for I’m digging into my long buried problems which you probably wouldn’t be interested in anyhow. But do me a favor, read on to the next chapter.
AT PRESENT Louis is nowhere. His interest in writing is useless in school and his sensitivity to words useless on the streets. He believes in himself and refuses to yield his pride, even if it drives him out of school. The guidance counsellor of his junior high school insisted he take a vocational course in high school, but Louis persisted and is now in an academic course in high school. His teachers feel it is a mistake. He laughs and has taken an Arabic name, an “original” name, a name that is his strength. His Muslim commitment is not out of hatred—it is a melancholy sign of the pride and selflove he has been able to preserve in an unbelieving and hating world.
It is hard to believe that this is necessary or inevitable. Teachers must be taught to look for sensibility and feeling in their pupils, as well as the abilities to perform intellectual tasks. Children’s literature involves experiment and play. Teachers usually try too hard to interpret their pupil’s work. If a child writes about violence he is looked upon as expressing violent impulses that are “really” within him. If he writes about loneliness his teacher tries to provide him with companionship. This usual view of writing condescendingly implies that the child is incapable of literary exploration. Worse, it implies he is as humorless as the adults who assume responsibility for his education. I have laughed, cried, been duped, outraged, and sometimes bored by what my pupils have written—and I have told them this. Their effort to understand themselves and the things around them demands no less.
November 17, 1966
The habit of grading a written exercise according to form neatness, spelling, punctuation, and heading is not surprising considering that the written part of the examination for the New York City substitute elementary school teaching license is graded that way. Content is irrelevant. ↩
These essays appeared in a magazine What’s Happening, run by teen-agers and sponsored by Elaine Avidon. ↩