Writing the personal essay is exhausting emotional work, and I’ve made the mistake over the years to think that creative writing in the classroom is a lesser form of work than a critical essay is. I spent a class period doing line revisions for students and came across a piece about loss, a student who lost her father, and I had to stop because even though much of what was written was controlled and lightly contemplative, I got emotional. The writing had a lot of white space that I occupied with my own reflections about her, about being a father, about my sons. Her words overwhelmed me, and the students were able to see it.
About ten years ago I sat in a meeting with a group of adults talking about a student who threatened to do harm to other students, to the school. We had heard it from other kids so it alarmed us, created a meeting. It didn’t seem like anyone at the table was taking it as seriously as it should have been. The boy was asked not to come to school for a while, but there was no psychoanalysis done – no assessments made aside from small-town ones.
I used to hunt with his father.
Older sister was a great student.
Oh, he’d never do such a thing.
There was no substantive talk about the boy, and it made me upset. I’m no hero, though. I was worried more about me and my family and the three-year-old boy I had at home. I didn’t want the kid to come back to school and create a tragedy that would alter my life permanently, that the town and its people would never recover from.
Columbine happened maybe three or four years before the meeting, but it was still fresh in my mind. I admire people who can tuck things away neatly into their brains and go about their lives quietly, sensibly. It’s not always easy for me. I can’t even tuck things away neatly on my desks at work or home, and my mind seems to resemble that disorder. Some incidents and memories are buried, hidden, and others are right up front with my need to remember that I have to pick up my kids at 4:45 today instead of 5.
I’m pushing the girl writing the personal essay to dig a little deeper, but I’m trying to be careful. I see it as one of those dinosaur fossil expeditions I see on television or the movies. People are bent over the excavation site with the tiniest of tools, with the greatest precision, sweeping away grains of sand to expose a perfect fossil without damaging it. It’s a process that takes months. I’m asking this girl to do it in two weeks along with her work in five other classes.
So it overwhelms me and I shed tears during class. I think the students appreciate that I can cry and that I care so deeply for them. Or some think that emotion is a poisonous thing and that I’m unstable, that I’ve gone out of my way to burden them with my emotion.
I spoke out in that meeting of all the adults. The boy’s mother was there, too, and I said something like, “We have to take this seriously…I’m not coming into work to worry about this every day, and I’m not sitting by while the students in our school are put in harm’s way because you all aren’t taking his threats seriously…”
I probably said it just like that, too: urgent, accusatory.
I upset just about everyone at the table, and the administrator sitting across from me picked up her pen and wrote on her paper, “I’m getting worried about Frank.”
It was like a movie, a Twilight Zone episode, where you’re actually talking sense, almost screaming out because no one can hear you; no one can decipher your words.
I must have heard that about fifteen times in my life – that people are worried about me. It’s one of the most insincere things you can say to me. Don’t worry about me. My mother and father are the only ones allowed to worry about me. You’re not allowed to worry about me.