The hounds of spring

A stint teaching writing to high school students leaves the author wondering why girls still haven't learned how to dream.

By Sallie Tisdale

Published July 1, 1997 12:23PM (EDT)

Months ago, when it was dank and cold, three weeks teaching writing to high school students seemed a short enough commitment. In April, it's not so easy. Not on fragrant, mild mornings and warm afternoons full of light. I am the fourth writer in this experimental program funded by a distant foundation, the last visiting writer for the year. I follow a playwright, a poet and a novelist. Each of us took over the same four classes, the same 110 students, divided between regular freshmen and sophomore honors.

I run into the poet at a party a few weeks after his session ended, and he is sly and self-satisfied. "They're going to eat you up," he says, with enthusiasm. "You've gotta get right in their faces," he adds, getting right in my face, "and show them what's what."

So I call the novelist who preceded me, a mild man with a grown daughter and years of classroom experience. "It's the hardest teaching I've ever done," he tells me. "And I'll never do it again."

I'm confident, even in my spring fever. I've taught only adults for several years, but I have three teenagers of my own. I've been rearing children for almost 20 breathless years, and for much of that time I've lived and worked half a block from the big inner-city high school where I'll teach. It's a huge campus, a handsome brick complex covering almost two square blocks next to a city park strewn with the teens' discarded cigarette butts. The campus is "open," and every day several hundred of the 1,800 students walk by my house on the way to their fast-food lunches and return a short time later, tossing Burger King and McDonald's wrappers on my lawn. I think I know teenagers and their animal energy -- their explosive pleasures, their dark grief, their eternal restlessness, their springs.

The two freshmen classes are full of loud boys and inattentive girls, daring me to interest them. Several set themselves distinctly apart. Anna, heavy and plain, surrounds herself with yards of empty space, crouches behind purple lips and raccoon eyes. Damon is 17, making his third and last attempt to pass freshmen English. He is tall and coolly handsome and self-conscious. "I've got a big penis," he tells me on the first day, when we're doing introductions.

Most of the freshmen disappear in the crowd. Pairs and trios huddle together in the back. They call me "Yo!"; they blend together, mouths hanging open when I speak.

The sophomores are calm, obedient, tranquil. Whether this is a difference between freshmen and sophomores, or bonehead English and honors, I'm never quite sure. The sophomores worry about my grading system and call me "Ms. Tisdale." The young men are lanky out of all proportion, taller than me and quick to blush, easy to praise. Josie and Sandra ("that's Sondra") have wild hair and long skirts and sit together, self-consciously mature and outspoken. There are dozens of slim, button-nose girls with shoulder-length brown hair and schoolgirl skirts and short-sleeved sweaters. They are all tediously polite.

"The hounds of spring are on winter's traces," for me as well as them, and I'm surprised at how difficult it is to stand under fluorescent lights in front of this sea of staring faces all day long, these 110 faces all seemingly called Megan or Tyler or K'Shanti. I'm surprised at how difficult it is for me to see each one separate from the others, to meet each one, to simply remember names in the institutional havoc of high school.

Before I started, the classroom teacher gave me a paper listing the six separate schedules used, and a schedule for the schedules; every day before I walk the half-block here, I have to consult my schedule to find out which schedule we're on that day. Sometimes there are 48-minute periods, and sometimes there are 31-minute periods. Sometimes there are assemblies or faculty meetings, and sometimes the entire school opens two hours late. I can't get used to the giant hive's obeisance to the chaos. It is all so far from the day I keep at home, the long silences and self-determined hours in which I write.

The bells ring and ring, two before and after every class. Bells ring, and the empty halls fill with 1,800 handsome, healthy young people wearing a variety of fashion mistakes, the air thick with sweat, pheromones and a hundred kinds of tension, like some three-dimensional model of chaos theory. They appear, a human tsunami, and disappear a few minutes later. During class, the phone rings. Unspecified "warning" bells ring. Staff walk in and out of the room, other students walk in and out of the room, carrying messages, asking questions. The daily announcement sheet is delivered. Almost every day, a half-dozen students stand suddenly in the midst of a period and grab their packs. "Where are you going?" I ask, and they say, "Field trip," or "Track meet," or "Yearbook meeting," and leave.

The starting bell rings and they are still wandering in, to find their way into the semi-circle rows, chatting, yelling, shoving each other; they put on makeup, draw cartoons, sleep. Every day Jessica spends sixth period patiently scraping the silver lining out of pieces of chewing gum and rubbing it on to her binder cover, filling her mouth with a wad the size of a baby's fist. When the second bell rings, I walk to the front and they turn mercilessly upon me, like a crowd awaiting the verdict, ready for anything.

My focus for these three weeks is a twisted autobiography, a memoir of their futures, looking back. For the final assignment, I want them to do a short scene from the book they might write when they are old -- and it takes days for me to explain this.

First, imagine your future, I tell them on the first day. Any possible future. Outline it. The freshmen stare at me. "How am I supposed to know what's going to happen?" one pretty girl asks, all innocent stupidity. The sophomores want to know how it will be graded. "What's an outline?" ask several freshmen. "When's it due?" ask the sophomores.

I start again. Imagine your future. From where you sit, I tell them, almost anything could happen. Almost anything. You could be rich or poor, happy or sad. You could become an interstellar traveler, a bum, an inventor, a criminal. What might happen that will affect you? Who will enter your life? What will you choose?

Make an outline, I say, drawing a form on the blackboard, my hands sticky with yellow chalk -- events on one side and your feelings about them on the other. Think of love, wisdom, terrible mistakes, illness, luck, learning.

"You mean two outlines?" asks a freshman boy.

"Is this legal?" asks a sophomore girl in the next period.

"Legal?" I ask.

"I mean," she says, "is it legal to write about something we don't know anything about?"

The next day, a dozen freshmen scratch their heads in bemusement when I mention the outline. "What outline?" goes the chorus -- that day, every day that week.

Meanwhile, I have to fill 31 minutes, 42 minutes, 48 minutes, four times a day. We do free writing ("What am I supposed to write about?") and make lists of people who have influenced them, places they've been, things they've learned and what people and places and skills might come in the future. Quickly I find another surprise. The boys are wilder writers -- less careful of convention, more willing to leap into the new. I start watching the dozens of vaguely familiar girls, who seem to have shaved off all distinguishing characteristics. They are so careful. Careful about their appearance, what they say and how they say it, how they sit, what they write. Even in the five-minute free writes, they are less willing to go out from where they are -- to go out there, where you have to go, to write. They are reluctant to show me rough work, imperfect work, anything I might criticize; they are very careful to write down my instructions word by word.

They're all trying themselves on day by day, hour by hour, I know -- already making choices that will last too unfairly long. I'm surprised to find, after a few days, how invigorating it all is. I pace and plead for reaction, for ideas, for words, and gradually we all relax a little and we make progress. The boys crouch in their too-small desks, giant feet sticking out, and the girls perch on the edge, alert like little groundhogs listening for the patter of coyote feet. I begin to like them a lot.

Then the outlines come in. I am startled at the preoccupation with romance and family in many of these imaginary futures. But the distinction between boys and girls is perfectly, painfully stereotypical. The boys also imagine adventure, crime, inventions, drama. One expects war with China, several get rich and lose it all, one invents a time warp, another resurrects Jesus, another is shot by a robber. Their outlines are heavy on action, light on response. A freshman: "I grow populerity and for the rest of my life I'm a million air." [sic] A sophomore boy in his middle age: "Amazingly, my first attempt at movie-making won all the year's Oscars. So did the next two. And my band was a HUGE success. It only followed that I run the country."

Among the girls, in all the dozens and dozens of girls, the preoccupation with marriage and children is almost everything. They are entirely reaction, marked by caution. One after the other writes of falling in love, getting married, having children and giving up -- giving up careers, travel, college, sports, private hopes, to save the marriage, take care of the children. The outlines seem to describe with remarkable precision the quietly desperate and disappointed lives many women live today.

One girl writes of her future -- and I feel this way, too -- "Long awaited depression will fall on me, and I will be ready for it."

For the second week, while I repeatedly remind them of the chapter they must write and then read out loud, we do exercises. More free writing, more lists. We make a list of childhood playground games, a rousing 20-minute shoutfest, and write scenes about them. We break into small groups. I bring my big box of crayons and a pad of art paper and have them draw maps of a familiar childhood place and try to remember everything that happened there. "More crayons!" they all shout the next day, and so we draw personal symbols of the future where our social security number will be replaced by logos.

I get to know a few students in the changing crowds. Anna turns in every assignment, speaks up in every discussion. Joseph, with his peroxide blonde fade and unreadable neon-orange pen, Joseph who never listens and never shuts up and drives me crazy, seems to genuinely care what I think about his work. Skinny little Hunter, with an opinion on everything, who loves to take the least popular position and start arguments, tells me his parents would be angry if they knew he did something as wasteful as "writing stories." He sits next to Rebecca, pretty, plump, smart, and they fight constantly. Karen, quiet and self-contained with a perfect silver hoop piercing her left eyebrow, is a strong-minded and clear thinker.

On a quiet Wednesday in the second week, discouraged by the girls' outlines, I talk to the sophomores about self-censorship. I should have done this earlier, I see now; I thought perhaps they wouldn't need it yet, the way adults usually do. I thought maybe they wouldn't understand it -- but I was wrong about both things. I make lists on the board about what we're afraid to write about and who we want to please and suddenly everyone is talking at once, Josie and Hunter and Rebecca and even a few of the Megans, tentatively raising their hands, arguing about censorship and offensiveness and politically correct speech, what is obscene, who decides.

But the next day, the real agenda returns. It is almost time to read the stories. The other writers, they tell me, didn't make them read. I'm not making them, I reply, only giving higher grades for it. The other writers read their work for them -- I won't. One of the other writers read their work anonymously -- I steadfastly refuse.

Instead I buy potato chips and pretzels, jelly beans and red licorice whips and M&Ms and come to class on the first read-out-loud day with overflowing grocery bags. The first reader chooses the first treat, I say, and Isaac surprises me by going first. Isaac is smart, shy, with one crossed eye, and Isaac knocks everyone out with his account of how he fell from grace as world chess champion, became a bum and finally rose to new fame as a Central Park hustler.

After class, four girls stop me and say all at once, "We can't read!" They can't read, they say, because Isaac's story is so good and theirs are so boring and his is full of adventure and theirs is not. They are afraid to read out loud, fearful of being thought stupid or foolish or -- what? I ask them. Girlish? Boring, says one Megan. (Which Megan? I can't remember.) This is a terrible fear, I know -- this fear of not being interesting -- of being trivial, not special. It is almost as great, I think, as their fear of standing out and being special. I give them a little pep talk, but they aren't consoled.

After a few days of the bravest students coming to stand in front of the class, showing everyone their personal symbol, reading their stories and then staying put to hear comments, one girl begs me to let her read while sitting at her desk. I list again the reasons why I want her in front: You'll read better standing up; you need to claim your work; you'll be more confident in the end. Please, she begs, but I'm tough and say no. Read in front or not at all.

"Slowly, clearly, please," I say, and one by one they hunch over their papers and read: nervous, sometimes joking, sometimes stiff, smiles plastered on their faces, a few with ripe pimples and big feet, a few blossoming in perfect spring bloom.

And I am surprised again, to tears. There are bad stories, dull stories -- and beautiful stories, better than the stories some of my adult students write. I close my eyes and listen to the voices, deep and high, fast and murmured, and sometimes stumbling and thick, and images appear, people in a London flat, a busy airport, autumn leaves skittering across a wet sidewalk, a bitter whispered fight, a sour resignation to mediocrity. The technique seems to leap beyond all they've shown me, the maturity beyond their years.

(Later, line-editing the stories, I see the misspellings and incomplete sentences and misshapen construction I fail to hear in my delight at their voices. The freshmen spelling! "This Japanise undeground fighting areana is one of the dingist raggity places I have ever fought in." And the fatal danger of the sophomores' dependence on spellcheckers: "I gazed upon a pear of muscular biceps." "She turned summer salts." And my favorite: "I raped the package carefully.")

But the differences remain, more obvious than ever. The boys write about war and fame and money and alien contact. Damon writes about setting a world record in the 100 meters. It's not a great story, or even a good story. But it has a beginning, middle and end, and he stands in front of the class and reads without laughing. Lots of the boys write about marriage and love and hard choices, too, layered through their scenes of movement and action. The girls write about marriage and love and hard choices and no more. Sandra gives me a technically proficient and strangely passive story about a friend's pregnancy, and refuses to read. Jocelyn -- loud, obnoxious, obscene Jocelyn -- writes about her prayer to God to help her get a job. Anna, purple lips and raccoon eyes in place, reads an intensely detailed story about giving birth.

The exceptions occur even inside the rule. Nancy describes murdering her husband's lover in a gothic tale of madness and imprisonment. Desiree imagines becoming a pro basketball player and, in the end, quits to be with her children so her husband can continue to work for the team. Rebecca is the only girl who writes a story primarily about her own professional accomplishment. She describes running for president, and the entire story revolves around the stress of her campaign being focused on makeup, hair and clothing.

I don't know what to expect from Cindy. She's beautiful, delicately featured, slender, with a soft voice. She's beautiful in the way that makes adults coo and behave weasely. I suspect she's been stared at and coveted by strangers since her birth. She reads an explicit story about a businesswoman caught in the equation between power, money and sex, leaving the room dead silent. It is too knowing for comfort.

And the best story to come out of all the classes -- 110 students -- is written by quiet Rose, who is fat and plain and a stutteringly bad reader. It is mature, complex, layered, subtle; there is almost nothing I can write in the margins to make it better, this tale of a compromised marriage to an unfaithful layabout.

Toward the end of the three weeks, I have lunch with a representative from the foundation. She wants to know what could be done to make the girls more "confident." I rattle on, about girl-only classrooms, giving them room away from the boys, time to talk, permission to question and complain without being afraid of being seen as whiners, complainers, bad girls, tough girls. But I know that all of them, boys and girls both, are still only partly formed, soft as Playdoh. They are like golems -- their bodies in full flower and everything else a work-in-progress. I don't dare say there are essential gender differences here, though I wonder more and more.

"But girls have so many more role models now," the foundation representative says. She is a petite, elegant, beautiful woman in a black suit, perfectly coifed.

More role models. Which ones, I wonder? An increasingly impossible physical ideal? A clear-cut choice between career and family? They've seen their mothers suffer from trying to do both. They know all about the "second shift" of endless work. When I was 15, my role models were burning bras, marching in the street, starting clinics, passing laws and getting arrested. Role models now are selling diet books and making music videos.

The simple fact is, I don't know. I don't know how to help them. I know that I have to keep checking my watch during lunch and rush off to make the final bell for sixth period, and that all of these children who are almost grown have spent their entire lives ruled by a clock and the demands of strangers. They have grown up in a fragmented and chaotic place over which they have no control. I know they've rarely thought about the possibility of getting out; they don't see any place to get out to, anywhere to go not ruled by bureaucratic entanglements and someone else's schedule and somebody else's plans. If girls are somehow wired toward pliancy, then the helpless role of student in the shadow of the institution is the worst place they can be. If we want to teach them independence, the first thing to do would be to give it to them.

I'm sitting in the hallway at the end of third period, with three girls named Megan and one silent morose boy named Dave, trying to have individual conferences, which is of course impossible. There is simply no time, and no place to go but the hallway floor.

The Megans are all getting A's, good, competent I-turned-everything-in-on-time A's. Dave is flunking without apparent remorse, having done nothing, said nothing, for weeks. I tell the stocky, brunet Megan that I want her to read out loud and she says, "It's so hard to read. I hate to read my stuff. It seems so boring." And what I can't tell her is that it is, a little, sincere and earnest and predictable and boring. So I give them another little pep talk about the way women writers have been demeaned for writing about the domestic and how it's a great subject and great domestic stories have been written by men and women both, but especially by women, and how they're going to have to cope sooner or later, whether they write or not, with this dismissal of the female realm. And they nod, good students, good girls, silently acquiescing to authority.

Dave sits cross-legged, staring at the floor, in dour sleepy silence. He will never write anything, but I will miss him anyway, this lumbering boy. I will miss them all; I miss them already.

So I say it again: "I'll be listening to you. I'll listen." And what I want to say, long to say, and don't, is: Dream a little. Oh, my girls, dream.

Then the bell rings again and the human ocean spills into the hallway like breakers in a storm. We scramble up off the floor before we're trampled by the hurrying sea.

Sallie Tisdale

Sallie Tisdale's most recent book is "Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom" (Harper San Francisco, 2006). She contributes to magazines such as Harper's, Tricycle, and Antioch Review.

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