This is actually my column from two weeks ago; not the first time I've been caught playing catch-up.
SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
Several years ago I was invited to read a story to a group of elementary school students, apparently because the teachers had the impression writers are also capable of reading out loud. I suppose that made me a celebrity reader, although of course the kids had no idea who I was.
Afterward, while trying to find some way to keep them interested in reading, I came up with what I thought was a brilliant plan. “Kids,” I told them, “I’m a volunteer firefighter and I take 911 calls for a living, but I’ve never had adventures as great as the ones I’ve gotten out of a book.”
Well, that got them interested, all right. Unfortunately, it didn’t get them interested in reading. For the rest of the time I was peppered with questions about being a fireman, and treated to little stories about when they’d experienced fires themselves. All thoughts of reading were forgotten.
I was never invited back.
That’s probably nothing personal, but I keep getting this image of an entire classroom of kids who grew up to be pyromaniacs, and never read another book in their lives except maybe The Anarchist’s Cookbook.
Fortunately I learned my lesson, and never again got involved with writing and young people in such a way that I might publicly embarrass myself.
Oh, who am I kidding?
This time around I was asked to judge prose writing entries for Noble County 4-H projects. Yes, it’s true: 4-H is about more than producing the wooliest sheep or most succulent sow, although without that I might have never experienced some great ham dinners. 4-H, often looked down on by city folk who would starve to death if left to their own devices, is loaded with areas in which kids are shepherded into the roles that will one day define them as adults.
And I was to be part of that.
Scary, ain’t it?
I figured it would be easy. After all, I love to read; how hard could it be to read a bunch of stories by up and coming young authors? In this, I completely missed the “judging” part.
Although I have many writer friends, I usually avoid helping to critique or review their product. My comments are amazingly unhelpful, because I hate criticizing other people, and I’ve never been all that good at picking out major literary stuff such as themes. It’s not uncommon for readers to tell me what the theme was – in my own stories.
Another problem is that I’m easily entertained, and so can’t judge good from bad. For instance, to the horror of my wife, I like teen pop music. Most TV shows are okay by me until you start dropping the word “reality” into them. I mostly liked the first Twilight book, even though from a technical standpoint it contained some of the worst writing I’ve read in a published work. (But not the worst; I’m looking at you, William Shatner.)
But I had to suck it up, put on my big boy pants, face the music, and search out clichés like the plague. I would be fair to these young writers, and point out where they were having problems even while offering encouragement. I would not just hand out blue ribbons willy-nilly.
There were eleven entries. I handed out ten blue ribbons. The last one, a beginner level entry, missed getting a blue ribbon by that much, and I’m still not certain I wasn’t too hard on the writer.
The problem is I didn’t expect them all to be good, because I wasn’t. I wrote voraciously when in school. Some classmates thought I was a straight-A student, because I was always hard at work on my school stuff.
Only I wasn’t – I was writing. I was writing in class much of the time, too, which is fine except my writing was fiction, unrelated to the class. How I managed a B- average is a mystery to me.
With all that writing, you’d think I’d have gotten better, wouldn’t you? But these 4-H kids – they’re all better than I was at their age. Maybe I’d have managed a blue ribbon, but only the same way I managed to pass chemistry class: by the skin of my cliché ridden teeth.
The high school efforts were especially impressive, but not one of them was bad; it was a matter of choosing between good and great, then choosing among the great for champion. In an attempt to not over-praise and to find something to justify my job, I was reduced to pointing out the most minor of problems – things professional writers with decades of experience still do. With most of the entries, it would take only a little more learning and a few years of practice before these young writers will be publishable. One or two of them already is.
One or two of them is, in fact, at the level where I’d have to work my brain and typing fingers to tiny nubs, just to match them.
It made me want to teach writing. Yes, I recognize what a horrible idea that is, but they were that inspiring.
These are our “lost youth”. These are the people who dress funny and stick stuff through their skin, the ones we complain are lazy, and don’t get it, and have lost respect. If you look for the bad, it’s that much harder to stumble onto the good.
But I stumbled onto it, thanks to 4-H. Our future is not lost yet, not as long as there are still young people raising animals, pulling all-nighters for their science fair projects, volunteering after school, and opening their – and our – minds with the written word. The future isn’t lost, not yet.
At least, not as long as I avoid reading to elementary schoolers.