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Writing Their Wrongs

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LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT,'' I SAID. "All four of you want to write stories about child abuse?''

The girls--one with pigtails, three in stone-washed jeans and sweatshirts adorned with "Peanuts'' characters and the Minnesota Twins' World Series logo--nodded in unison. They were part of the 4th grade class that had started writing short stories with me the day before.

"Write about anything,'' I had said on Monday, and when the class brainstormed, the ideas they came up with were the usual assortment of looniness, fantasy, and 9-year-old playground confrontations. Now, on Tuesday, these four girls wanted to write about abuse--and they wanted to do it as a group. Clearly, this was something important to them. I felt a little like Pandora standing before her infamous box. Who was I to conjure such risks?

Volatile issues don't simmer under the surface of every school I visit as a writer-in-residence, but, time and again, I've had kids expose pain, bewilderment, and sadness through their writing. Wounds--the sense of being an outsider, selfdoubt, broken friendships, trouble at home--are exposed on the page more often than parents might want to believe. What should be done with such material? How can a teacher-- much less a visiting writer--bring healing to such kids?

When these pains surface, I address them--obliquely. Most often, I simply focus on the demands of the story at hand. Doing so gives kids the distance they need to stand back from their own lives and get a clear perspective on the possibilities that lie within a conflict or at a crossroad.

"What else could happen here?'' I might ask. Or, "The reader won't care about Rosalita unless you find ways to use the traits you've given her.'' Even when the story is told in the first person, I keep the blanket of fiction pulled securely over us: "Why does the `I' character choose to act in such a destructive way?'' I'll ask.

While a well-placed idea from an outsider can sometimes do marvels for unblocking students' dead ends, even better is to let them discover their own way around them. Most young kids have never analyzed their own behavior, never weighed the pluses and minuses of different ways of behaving. Ask them to consider such alternatives in a wayward story, however, and spotlights switch on in their brains. Eyes go large; pencils start scribbling. And the next time they face a personal problem, they will have a new tool for coping with it.

It worked that way with Sarah, a quiet girl in a small-town school who started what she thought was a humorous story about a trip to Iowa. Every day, she would ask me whether the story was worth continuing. I wasn't sure. There was clearly something missing. But the ideas I tossed out seemed to land awkwardly, well outside the mental net she was working with. Still, I told her to try alternatives. It wasn't until midweek that she finally saw that the story's real subject was the death of her grandmother during the trip--and her own guilt over having skipped off with a friend when it happened.

The writing of that story enabled Sarah to make sense out of a piece of life that had troubled her for some time. Stories are like that.

But what about the serious cases? Writers are rarely trained in personal therapy or group dynamics. Isn't our obligation simply to inform an outside authority about what we've learned?

Certainly. But our involvement doesn't need to stop there. When the four girls told me they wanted to write about child abuse, I first had a word with their teacher. The law requires such reporting. The teacher told me that one of the girls had, in fact, been in an abusive situation in the past. It had already been dealt with by a social-service agency. The others, she felt, were simply friends who either knew what had occurred or were responding to a film on child abuse recently aired schoolwide.

I went back to the girls and sat them down. The idea was fine, I said. But I wanted to see four different stories, each with its own strategy for dealing with the situation. They could work together, but each girl needed to have the fun of developing her own style and structure. The results? In one story, the abused kids ran away. In another, they phoned a radio station during a call-in show and spilled the beans on the air. In a third, they convinced their baby sitter to adopt them. And in the fourth, Dad broke down, confessed his guilt, and resolved to make a change.

Not only did the girls learn a variety of concrete strategies for dealing with abuse, but they also built a network of emotional support among themselves.

Not all traumas call for such intervention. In one rural junior high, a girl handed me a story called ``The Night My Dad Never Woke Up!!'' At first glance, it looked like mere adolescent melodrama (death stories are common), but the style of specific detail she used gave me pause. Then, I learned it was a true story.

That stopped me short. I made all my best sympathy moves, desperate to alleviate the crushing shame or grief I was sure she must be feeling, and then I went looking for more information. It turned out that everybody in town was familiar with the details. The girl herself was sufficiently at ease with the topic to pass her story along to two friends for the same type of critique they expected from her on their stories.

This girl had already gone through most of the grieving process. She didn't need any excessive sympathy or verbal tiptoeing. She was ready to hold the incident at arm's length and extract its meaning.

That, it seems to me, is the healing power that writing offers. Is it a frightening power? At times, yes. As we ask kids to dig deep inside their own experiences for material, we must expect to get hit in the face with shaky self-esteem and unresolved trauma. But the risks of stifling these opportunities for self-expression may be equally large, particularly among adolescents. By using writing's power, we can turn such revelations into healthy forms of bloodletting.

Writing offers kids an alternate universe, one where they can reveal new sides of themselves--or try out new approaches to the world. This is the gift that we as writing teachers bear. But it is a gift whose unwrapping must come from the students themselves, sliced open by the written word.

Daniel Gabriel directs the Writers & Artists-in-the-Schools program for COMPAS, a Minnesota community-arts agency.

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