A cyclist rear-ended by an SUV so hard he flipped onto his back and skidded 20 feet frets about the frantic driver, and whether the man will lose his license. A girl hides her stoner Dad’s stash and lies about his activities to the point where she develops amnesia and must be hospitalized when she can’t tell teachers her own name. Another teen’s father comes home from a foreign business trip with a new wife, and the boy cannot find the words to tell his father why they no longer talk.
I teach 8th graders, and they write for me. I don’t tell them to say these things, but they do. All I do is give them a few instructions on how to fill in bubble maps and outlines, which way to lay out sentences and paragraphs, and what they’ll be graded on. They may learn what goes where from me, but what I learn from them goes far beyond what they put on the page. I learn that in a class of 30, at least half of them will think they are Atlas, struggling to hold up some small corner of the sky they think no one else can see.
But I see it. They have to spill it somewhere, and a recent essay assignment gave them the perfect excuse to confess. I didn’t promise to keep confidences — every student faces peer editing, and I made sure to remind them that I cannot protect them from lost papers or nosy parents. They were to assume what they wrote would be read.
Maybe the need to unburden outweighed the risk of public discovery, or maybe we all have stories to tell, and we instinctively know which ones need telling the most urgently. I do not know. I know what I read, and what I read broke my heart about every other page or so. They worry about grandma getting lonely now that grandpa is gone. They want their divorcing parents to know that everything really will be okay. They don’t recover when a parent or sibling dies. They just learn to go on.
We writers often assume kids read young adult books looking for role models or ways to sort through their own issues, or how to be heroic in the face of insurmountable odds. We think they’re looking to be heroes, of the Joseph Campbell variety, refusing and then embracing the call, staring down dangers, even if it’s just what to wear that day when nothing else is working out.
But if they’re heroes, they don’t see it. The teens whose hearts bleed out in five-paragraph bursts see themselves almost universally as failures. One boy, stabbed repeatedly by bullies with pencils until his clothes were blood-soaked, cannot reconcile why he didn’t do more to fight them off. There were five of them. A girl cannot make her mother understand why she finds it creepy that her stepfather keeps complimenting her looks, her skin, her legs.
I cannot tell them they are my heroes. It would sound meaningless, patronizing, dull. So I hand them bubble maps and outlines, and I critique their syntax, their organization, their wording. They get A’s and B’s and smile, thinking the worst is over. Because they don’t see the blood on every page, even when they’ve spilled it. Because they want their parents to see their good grades and approve. Because they’re still children. Because they need to write and explain and complain and write some more.
Because somewhere, the sky is always falling.