by Barbara D'Amato
You’re eighteen years old and a straight-A student. Your senior year creative writing teacher asks you to write an essay expressing emotion. You do.
Shortly thereafter, you’re arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. You are forbidden to return to school.
Bomb threats, falsely ringing a fire alarm, even dialing 911 for no reason could be called disruptive behavior. But completing a school assignment?
The ACLU Illinois spokesman says that the element of “disruption” does not occur when an act is done in private, as when a paper is handed to a teacher.
This happened to Allen Lee of Cary, IL. The April 25 Chicago Tribune carried the story and then several suburban papers, various editorials, and eventually a huge number of blogs. It’s become a major Chicago area issue, as maybe it should be.
The kid was asked to produce an essay expressing emotion. Express an emotion? Well, let’s see. Is there a teenager who is NOT angry about something? Well---mm. Gotta be one around here someplace. Hand up over there? No? Well—
If a teacher wants a student to write about emotions and let himself go, maybe the teacher had better say what emotions are permissible. Love, hope, and fear, in this case, but not anger, apparently.
Tell you what. Maybe you can write about how warm and fuzzy you feel toward your parents, and by the way, puppies are cute, too.
The kid had never been in trouble with the police. He had begun the process of enlisting in the Marines, who then discharged his application.
The content of the essay had not been made public at first, but more inflammatory parts soon were, leading the kid and his parents to release the whole thing. Yes, it had nasty language. What may have caused the whole uproar is the part that insults the teacher, calling her a control freak.
In any case, there’s no need to explore the details of this particular case. It should have been handled by an experienced counselor, to try to decide whether Lee was actually a threat to anyone. Not by calling the cops. Not by throwing him out of school a month before graduation. People have been skittish since Virginia Tech, but the gunman there had given off many bigger warning signs.
It’s not necessary to eviscerate creative writing classes to achieve some sense of safety. I wonder whether those of us who daily put ourselves in the minds of angry and murderous people can give some help to the creative writing teachers. How do we do it? How personal is the bad emotion? How do we know where to stop?