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Playwriting to Compassion

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By Stephen O'Connor

The poem fragment that gives writer Stephen O'Connor the name for his book, Will My Name Be Shouted Out?, was penned by a 17-year-old boy killed at a school in Brooklyn in 1992. "When I die, will I be thought about?" the boy wrote. "Will my name be shouted out?"

Mr. O'Connor, a member of Teachers & Writers Collaborative, an organization that sends writers and other artists into New York City schools, has taught creative writing to junior high school students there since 1988. His book tells, on one level, about the day-to-day struggle to give inner-city students a means of apprehending and dealing with the most troubling aspects of their lives. On another level, it tries to convey to a broader audience the causes and points of resolution for what has been called "the crisis of the schools." The following excerpt is from a concluding chapter of reflections called "Changing the World":

Looking out on this nation's present political climate from the vantage point of the Walt Whitman Academy, it seems to me that one important reason for the present Draconian shift in tax and social-spending policies is that not enough people are practicing the skills I tried to teach my students, the skills of a good novelist or playwright.

I began teaching fiction and playwriting to my students at Walt Whitman Academy because I wanted them to have fun while learning to write. I also thought that by asking them to imagine the needs and viewpoints of other people and encouraging them to look beyond stereotypes, I would provide my students with skills that would be useful to them in every aspect of their private lives, from their business negotiations to their marriages. And finally, in a school where so many students seemed only to respect the Virtues of Strength, I thought that learning to understand what it would be like to be other people would, quite naturally, encourage the exercise of the Virtues of Compassion, in particular sympathy, solidarity, and tolerance.

In so much of public discussion today, there is a complete failure to look beyond the stereotypes of poverty and see the poor as human beings, who for all their particular pain and neediness, are more like every other American than different. When the poor are mentioned in public debate, they are almost never real people--never, as I would say to my students, "fully developed characters"--but only the cliched embodiments of prominent social problems: teenage moms, welfare cheats, muggers, crackheads, failures.

When the poor are not allowed to be real people, when they are defined only by the problems from which they suffer, it becomes all too easy to forget that these problems are not "natural" to them, that poor people don't like living in homes with busted locks and broken elevators, where bullets fly through the windows and rats scuttle across the kitchen floor; that poor parents don't want to beat their children or see them grow up to be drug addicts, prostitutes, or thieves, or get gunned down on the sidewalk; that, if anything, the poor hate the ghetto more than the middle class and would never voluntarily stay there in order to receive the average national welfare payment of a mere $298 a month. The stereotypes of poverty also make it hard to remember that there are millions of people living in ghettos who are passionate believers in "family values" and "the work ethic," who hold down two and three jobs to keep their families off welfare and give their children a shot at college. Many of these people do manage to scramble up the steep slope into the middle class, but all too often they lose their footing along the way because they or their spouses get laid off by a "downsizing" corporation or develop serious illness for which they are not adequately insured, or suffer any of the dozens of other calamities that people with slender financial means are prey to in this country.

There is no question that the poor are far more vulnerable than more affluent Americans, but perhaps the most important fact that the stereotypes of poverty obscure is the degree to which the middle class and the poor suffer from the same problems. The economic forces that throw so many members of the middle class into cold sweats over geometrically expanding credit-card bills or that have caused a whole generation of baby boomers to blame themselves for not being able to achieve the economic security of their parents are the very same ones that mean that an unemployed steelworker and his family have to spend their nights sleeping in their car, or that a single mother with two kids and two years of college has no choice but to take a minimum-wage job at a fast-food joint.

Our national failure to practice the skills of a good novelist or playwright not only denies the poor their humanity and drives wedges between people who have so much in common but also inspires social policy that will not work. It means that people fail to see that the poor don't need any additional incentive to escape their besieged neighborhoods and lives. It means that people don't see the absurdity of forcing women on welfare to work without providing them with safe, dependable child care they can afford. It means not understanding the basic decency of a mother who chooses to stay on public assistance rather than take a low-paying job and lose Medicaid coverage for her children. It means not understanding that most teenaged mothers don't have children because they are impulsive or irresponsible--or because they want to trade the agony of birth and the sacrifices of motherhood for a below-subsistence wage from the government--but because as many as two-thirds of them have been brutalized, abused, or abandoned by their mothers and fathers (often they have also been raped), and they are looking for love--for the one thing they can imagine having in their lives that might be pure and satisfying and good.

In the long run, however, the gravest danger of not exercising the skills of a novelist or playwright is that it makes it so hard for us to exercise the Virtues of Compassion. We are living at a very troubled moment in history--a time when most people outside of an ever smaller and ever richer elite are suffering economically; a time when social and technological change has proceeded more rapidly than many of us have been prepared for; a time of much confusion, much anxiety, and much anger. It is natural, in such an era, that many people should become enamored of the Virtues of Strength; that they should put their faith in strong leaders, tough policies, and tough love; and even that they should become fearful of weakness, whether it be the weakness of a bleeding heart or that segment of society that suffers the most from the problems that affect us all.

There is no question that our nation has many difficult decisions to make--decisions thrust upon it by economic circumstance and the short-sightedness of past leaders. But as we make those decisions, we cannot let our admiration for strength lead us to abandon the Virtues of Compassion. If we cut off a whole class of people from our sympathy or allow ourselves to take from the weak only because they are powerless to stop us, we will not end the crisis in the schools or make our streets safer; we will not breed healthier, happier children or more competent workers. What we will find instead is that the problems we might have contained will have grown to dreadful proportions, that we will have built a world where the strong might find prosperity and security but where the vast majority are condemned to live with the violence, fear, cynicism, and despair that my students are struggling so desperately to escape.

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