The real horror -- killing student creativity

"Quick, someone arrest Stephen King"

By Letters to the Editor

Published June 2, 2000 7:55PM (EDT)

Homework chain saw massacre BY MAURA KELLY (05/31/00)

When I was in junior high school, there was an algebra teacher whom all of us hated. My friends and I frequently entertained each other with stories about her grisly demise. We even featured her as the villain in a role-playing game in which we obliterated her with a laser cannon.

Yes, this was immature, anti-social behavior, and we were probably being unfair to the woman. But we were typical adolescent boys with typical adolescent boy fantasies: beautiful, naked girls, and our enemies perishing in big, fiery explosions ... in that order.

None of us ever conceived of actually harming our algebra teacher. Granted, none of us ever wrote out our fantasies and turned them in to her as a homework assignment either. But if we had, it might have merited punishment for insolence, but certainly not for "threatening" her.

I suppose a small fraction of teenagers who fantasize or write about killing their teachers or classmates actually do hurt someone. But all this "post-Columbine sensibility" is only teaching kids that if they have any thoughts that anyone might consider the least bit disturbing, they'd better keep them to themselves, lest jittery school administrators and hyperreactive parents decide that they're dangerous and need to be treated as threats to society.

-- David Edelstein

I'll tell you a horror story, Maura Kelly: Young Charles Carithers gets vilified and suspended from school for successfully and imaginatively completing his homework, while stimulating national debate. It's a frightening, bloodcurdling tale of the frenzy of zombiesque academic authorities to devour the brains of American kids, mutating them into unimaginative, complacent Disney characters whose cultural values are where they should be: Britney's boobs, Pokemon, sports, McDonald's and Abercrombie. The spookiest part of this tale is the willful sacrifice of a boy's civil liberties on the altar of conformity.

Absent from Kelly's myopic condemnation of the young writer is any mention that she spoke to the boy herself before rendering such unqualified judgments as "[the school] should require Carithers' mother to take him in for a psychological evaluation," or condemning his work as "a scream for attention." Adding injury to injury, Charles' dim bulb of an English teacher, Ms. Shah, unencumbered by a spine, goes straight to the authorities with his evil essay. There's no indication, at least from this piece, that she took the step she should have: a non-threatening, private conference with the Carithers family, including her pupil. Instead, she sees to it he's publicly humiliated and castigated, which can't be any better for his psyche than immersion in violence. Kelly's flap supports the post-Columbine tack of educators "to be more aware and attuned to signs of psychologically disturbed kids," but her failure to discover what's really going on in Charlie's mind demonstrates the witch hunt bungling of the nation's educators in pursuit of this mandate. This "awareness" process doesn't seem to include talking to, or more importantly, listening to, these kids. Which, coincidentally, is exactly what each of these schoolground triggermen has complained never happens.

Just thinking about the double standard at work in Kelly's opinion is lobotomizing. "What else is a story about murdering someone with a chain saw but a detailed plan to commit an act of violence and the perfect evidence that its author is unusually interested in violent entertainment?" she asks, forgetting about Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, the films of the Coen brothers or the plots of Yosemite Sam to dispatch Bugs Bunny. Quick, someone arrest Stephen King.

-- Gaby Kaplan

Here's a news bulletin for Maura Kelly: Authors -- young and old, amateur and professional -- often write about things they have no intention of doing in real life. That includes murder and suicide.

When Shital Shah assigned her class to write a horror story, she should not have assumed that every student would turn in something as inoffensive as an episode of "Sabrina the Teenage Witch." Horror fiction, by definition, is transgressive. It's supposed to push people's buttons.

It is hard to tell from Kelly's article exactly how far Charles Carithers went in pushing Shah's buttons. The names in Carithers' story do not match their real-life counterparts, and it seems as if the fictional teacher remains unscathed at the climax of the piece. Does this really warrant a three-day suspension? Based on the facts as presented by Kelly, he should not be stigmatized as some crazed kid threatening "bodily harm" to his teacher.

Words are not the same as actions. It's a lesson that Shah and Kelly both should learn.

-- Michael Berry

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