The 12-year-old with the red ponytail turns to me as the orchestra tunes up in the pit far below us. “I play flute and piccolo in our school band,” she says, her excitement at attending the symphony on a Friday night overcoming any concerns she might have about confiding in a stranger. “My mom and I got vouchers to come here tonight. It was free!”
“Here” is the Silva Concert Hall in Eugene, Ore. Almost all 2,500 seats are filled. Little boys in suits and little girls in velvet dresses bounce on their chairs in anticipation as the first violinist walks across the stage and takes her bow. A young boy behind me whispers to his father. “Dad! There’s the cello player who came to my school.”
The girl beside me nods wisely. “A bunch of the musicians down there came to my junior high last week. They played Mozart with our band. It sounded …” Her smooth face wrinkles, searching for just the right word. “Incredible.”
Her delight takes me back to Lake Arrowhead, in the spring of 1986. Two decades ago, at the age of 16, I attended the University of California, Los Angeles’ Young Writers’ Retreat over a long weekend in March. On a break between workshops, I climbed a snowy hillside in solitude with my pen and a cheap spiral notebook. I gazed out over the pines and firs, the landscape vastly different from my suburban tract home with its one scraggly willow. Incredible, I thought and began to write.
The Young Writers’ Retreat began in 1983, created by directors of the UCLA Writing Project, a professional-development network for teachers of writing from kindergarten to university. For the last 23 years, high school English teachers across Southern California have watched for students who demonstrate a clever turn of phrase, an innovative plot, then offered them an application for the retreat.
“I think you should attend this,” my own English teacher at Hawthorne High School, Anna Mae Labbe, said to me my sophomore year.
I studied the application and shook my head. “My family can’t afford it.”
Approached by Ms. Labbe, the local Rotary Club stepped in. They nobly supplemented my babysitting savings, enabling me to head up to the UCLA Conference Center at Lake Arrowhead with two classmates.
Did Ms. Labbe guess that someday, the shy teenager clutching her notebook and pen would become a professional writer, teaching the craft to high school and university students? It’s easy for a teacher to look out at the inscrutable faces and doodling pens during class and assume that nothing she has offered will resonate among her students.
But I know better.
Those three days at Lake Arrowhead in 1986, I hung on to every workshop teacher’s words as a lifeline out of a bewildering adolescence. My peers had abandoned creative endeavors for the more fashionable pursuits of athletics and student government. They regarded my penchant for story-writing as eccentric at best. But here at the Young Writers’ Retreat, teenagers and teachers alike revered the written word. I learned how to craft a sonnet, how to bring a story to life with sensory details, how to believe in myself as a writer in spite of my father’s assertion that pursuing a passion for literature was just too risky.
There were other students at the camp whose parents actually guided them toward such a career. One couple went so far as to saddle their daughter with the name Keats Elliot. But Keats, with her literary birthright, needed the haven in the trees as much as I did—needed the camaraderie of other writers, the hilarious after-hours games of hide-and-seek, the sober revelation of revision, and the anthology sent to our respective schools a month later that gave us our first bylines and our first stories and poems in print.
Over the years, we’ve watched creative-writing, music, art, and theater classes lose school funding while sports programs thrive. The trend sends a clear message to students that creative endeavors are just too risky to fund. “It’s really sad,” says the young girl beside me at the symphony, her ponytail switching with indignation. “I’m going to play in the band when I get to high school, but my friends are leaving band to play sports.”
Cutting funding for the arts while ramping up money for science and athletics makes for lopsided human beings.
Young bodies need physical education. I balanced creative writing, theater, track, and cross-country in high school, and came out the better for the workout of both mind and body. But high school and university students struggle to make do with outdated photography equipment, impossibly tight budgets, inadequate studio and performance spaces—all in the shadow of million-dollar sports complexes and the latest technological offerings. President Bush’s State of the Union Address in January emphasized the need for an increased focus on math and science—but how are these subjects of help to people if they lack literacy and creativity?
As teachers, shouldn’t we cultivate balanced minds? In high school calculus, I learned to reason through solving complex equations. Biology taught me to test and prove a hypothesis. Creative writing gave me the ability to put these revelations into words. Cutting funding for the arts while ramping up money for science and athletics makes for lopsided human beings.
Dedicated teachers like those at the Young Writers’ Retreat continue to guard the arts fiercely, ensuring that students learn the power of the pen, the paintbrush, an impassioned monologue, a Mozart symphony. At times, these educators may look out at the sea of faces and wonder if anything they’ve offered actually resonates among their students.
But trust me. Someone out there is listening. … I know.
A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2006 edition of Education Week as Learning That Resonates