I am teaching writing. For two blissful nights this semester – a tiny total of two hours – I have 15 students who need to write an essay.
For the SAT.
Yep, that’s the catch. The most formulaic of all assignments, the five-paragraph treatise on a topic of the College Board’s choice.
Do we put too much emphasis on newness?
Can money buy happiness?
Yes or no. Choose a stance and don’t waiver, students. Writers have 25 minutes, and they have to fortify their prose with three examples – a personal experience, a book they read, and maybe a current event. But most definitely NOT a TV show.
One by one on a Wednesday night, the kids file in to get started – pulled away from basketball to get the skills they need to rank up points in a different kind of game.
Most of the students are boys because I am teaching at St. Ignatius Loyola Academy, a middle school like the one where I work, but for boys. I think this might be my seventh time teaching SAT writing, although I’ve lost track.
This is definitely my first time in their new school building in South Baltimore, and it’s a spacious and handsome space. The kids aren’t piled on top of each other like they were in their old Calvert Street location, right next to Center Stage and across the street from the Baltimore Sun. There, the classroom had splintering gaps between the floorboards and the corners were crammed with books. It was comfortable, but in a cluttered, we’re-literally-all-in-this-together kind of way.
Here, the kids can write without elbowing each other. The classroom is bright and airy. It feels like a college.
Get comfortable, I tell them. We have a lot of work to do.
It’s fun to teach boys after spending the day talking to girls or their parents. Most of the guys are juniors — a few are seniors — at various private high schools or the top public schools around the city. They are courteous, these boys. And serious. They settle into their postures for class like yoga practitioners stretching into Warrior. Except their posture would be called Stoic Young Men.
Only a few of them will admit they dislike writing. But only a few will admit to liking it.
Oh, if only I could make more of them fall in love with crafting prose!
We debate newness – most of them think we do put too much emphasis on the shiny and fresh in our society. For their personal examples, a few of them talk about people they know getting jumped for their iPhones or their Nikes.
The Stoic Young Men are doing the best they can with the subject matter. Their teacher is doing the best she can with the subject matter, but of course I find myself wishing this was a creative writing class.
Even with the formula we’ve been given, even after a long day of classes for them, I can see the glimpses of creativity flicker. I wish I could really let these students stretch out and play, have fun with words, be kids – except this time without a basketball. Unless of course that’s what they wanted to write about.
After one hour, I leave them with another instructor and a set of math problems. My own head is spinning with story ideas, my fingers are itching to type. This is the time of year when I am the busiest, when the workload is so big and the parental responsibilities so pressing I feel like I am crawling through a tunnel that I have to knit myself.
And yet, I have so many ideas for stories — so many scraps of conversations, snippets of character, bits of prose fabric I want to get down, secure to paper before they get sucked up in life’s funnel cloud. The day job and the children may occupy me, but my mind hasn’t stopped writing. I guess this is my way of whistling while I work.
So, I find myself a little envious of these SAT students — to be given an hour to write! To be told to get comfortable. Enjoy this, I want to say to the Stoic Young Men the next time I see them. Enjoy this.