Mind Prison

By Robert C. Koehler

“You let them use profanity in their writing?”

George winced and who can blame him? These were 10-year-olds I was talking about, one in particular, Amanda, who’d written about her fight with a bully on the school bus. The bully had cussed her out and in her essay she quoted him with unblinking precision, raising — certainly in my neighbor’s mind (we were riding the train home together as I rattled on) — some alarming questions, e.g.: Truth is nice, but what about decency? And aren’t fifth-graders a little too young for academic freedom?

I’d put these questions another way: To what extent do children own their own lives? And, is there a pedagogical difference between guiding and herding?

I, for one, take less satisfaction from witnessing a young person’s perfect echo of our expectations in her performance than from seeing that child surprise and even shock us — not by some calculated outrage, but by revealing who she really is. This is an acquired taste. It’s a little scary at first.

Alan Paton, the great South African novelist, describes in his memoir For You Departed how, as a young educator assigned the principalship of Diepkloof Reformatory, he set about turning this grim, foul, unsanitary institution for African delinquents from a jail into a school. “On New Year’s Day, 1936,” he wrote, “we took away the front portion of the high barbed wire fence and the second great gate that was in it. At first it was like being naked.”

As I read this, I thought about the barbed wire around the educational process that isn’t always visible. My brother-in-law, for instance, bitterly summed up his undergraduate experience at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities thus: “They took the smartest kids in the country and proceeded to tell us how dumb we were.”

Ivied institution, edifice of Great Ideas, before which puny undergraduates cower — sorry, this deserves rude kazoo noises. It’s bad teaching and bad attitude. No matter how great the ideas, you can’t leave the soul of the student out of the learning process; it’d be like teaching art appreciation to the blindfolded. (“If the eye were a living creature, sight would be its soul.” — Aristotle)

When I was an undergraduate, I was sprung out of mind prison by my Advanced Writing teacher, Ken Macrorie. The hacksaw-in-the-cake he slipped me (and all his students) was a technique called free writing, which meant — start writing RIGHT NOW and keep going. Don’t stop, don’t erase, don’t revise. Just write for 20 minutes. See what happens.

What happened was, my words found their way from my brain to my fingers. As I typed, I pumped up whole seas of experiential grist. I could begin with what I had for breakfast, move from the egg yolk to (for example) some hurt look in my mother’s eyes 10 years ago to … well, who knows, a passage from Dostoevsky or Kurt Vonnegut or Mad Magazine. Composition was no longer the tedious task of setting down what I’d already decided to say but a breathless journey into my God, I’d forgotten all about that! And out of this living process came insight and, startlingly, truth.

I hasten to add that it wasn’t just the technique that made this possible; it was the fact that Macrorie was a rare teacher, whose enthusiasm for great writing was equal to his enthusiasm for OUR writing. He found the gems in our raw verbiage, coaxed out more, helped us focus and encouraged us to be fearless. He de-intimidated us, you might say, by convincing us that the humanity in the loftiest literature — in Thoreau, in Shakespeare — was the stuff of our own honest work as well. The key word here is “honest.”

Knowing this, I was willing to risk pedagogical “nakedness,” as I gave a volunteer writing lesson in my daughter’s classroom, before the honesty of a free 10-year-old.


Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist. His new book, “Courage Grows Strong at the Wound” (Xenos Press) is now available in bookstores. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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