This semester I asked my students to keep a timeline journal. Beginning the year they were born, they wrote in significant events in each year of their lives. Other writing assignments were designed around the timeline.
I asked them to extend the timeline out as far as they thought it went, writing in hopes and plans for the future. One student asked, “You mean you want us to continue it out to the year we think we’re going to die?” Yes, I said, not realizing the boy in the second row only had 11 more weeks.
I don’t know that I teach well. I prepare lesson plans, I lecture, I sit down as much as possible to let my students talk. I tell them what is expected in the program, how to write research papers, where to place commas and periods and capitalization. They want to capitalize every word at their age and place exclamation points behind each sentence. Lectures on tone and voice quality escape them. They just want to pass a course.
I assign creative writing exercises to help them rediscover how to put words on the page so that the gears are are turning by the time they write their research paper. The class is set up on a point system. You receive points for attendance, turning in homework assignments and turning in essays. If you receive a certain amount of points by the end of the semester, you receive an A.
It solves the age-old problem. Who deserves an A more, the person who enters class with adequate writing skills but skips lectures and doesn’t pay attention or the person who begins with inadequate writing skills but never misses class and works hard with a tutor to revise essays. That’s the A student in my opinion, but I can’t ding the kid who comes in able to write but doesn’t pay attention.
A Brick On A Wall
In one creative writing assignment, I ask my students to write about a brick on a wall. It’s a straightforward assignment but always puzzles them. “That’s it, a brick on a wall? That’s the whole assignment?” Yes, I say, write about anything that comes to mind.
John, the boy in the second row, entered class with strong writing skills. He was a sandy haired, freckled-faced, 20-year-old boy with a thick Chicago accent who had been educated in private schools. Even though he had strong writing skills, he paid attention in class, always had something insightful to add or funny to say. Much of the energy in class centered around him and his earnestness to participate. The night we discussed a student essay on Hinduism, he discussed his own interest in that religion and research he’d done, which was extensive. I was impressed by his story Flugzeug, which I posted on this blog a few days after he died.
In the writing assignment on the brick wall, he wrote, “A brick on a wall has seen some of the greatest events in history, symbolized some of the worst, and has been around since the beginning of human civilization. The brick can be many colors, gray, yellow, clay, usually red. All in all, we’re just another brick in the wall. Drug dealers will hide a brick in a wall. A “b” in a “w” can also represent bricks in a wall, bird in a wall, beast in a way.”
In a writing assignment on success and failure, he wrote, “Since early puberty, I’ve gone through cycles of successes and failures that are all self-generated. I have the ability to achieve so much, and if I work hard I can exceed anybody’s expectations.
Conversely, I have the tendency to destroy myself and cause more harm to my success than any external factor. In sixth grade, I was almost kicked out of school, disowned by a large portion of my family and thrown into juvenile court. In seventh grade, I made high honors every quarter, was the only person from my school to go the state science fair, and changed my lifestyle.
My first semester [in college] as a freshman I had a 3.5 grade point average while taking chemistry, calculus and junior-level German. Last year, I failed two classes and almost went into drug rehab. Now, I’m back on track. I have been going to therapy to break these cycles, and I look forward to the future.”
I didn’t see the words, drug rehab when I first read this. I read the paper quickly along with 23 others and paperclipped it away on my desk. When I received the phone call from one of his friends that he’d accidentally overdosed on heroin, it took me completely by surprise.
The Timeline Journal
In the timeline journals students turned in, goals for the future included plans for jobs, family and children. The timelines extended until the students were in their seventies or eighties or only into their thirties if they couldn’t see beyond that.
The night I told them John died, I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t tell them how he died, but I assured them it wasn’t suicide. He had shared with the class earlier in the semester when his twin brother Mark had attempted suicide, and they all wanted to know if Mark knew yet. His parents were telling the brother that same night.
In the next class, a student brought a card they could sign and give to the family. I didn’t think of that myself. I couldn’t seem to pull it together those final few classes. When they gave me the card to mail, I tucked it away in a folder and didn’t look at it again. I realize now even as I type this, I still haven’t signed it.
John had been in the hospital the week before school ended with a virus that left sores on his face and in his eyes. The virus had started in Chicago when he was visiting his family for Easter, and the doctors weren’t sure what the virus was or how contagious. They prescribed several medications and kept him in the hospital two days on IVs. His trip back to Colorado was delayed, and I had to ask him for a release before he could be admitted back into class.
The night he showed up I was in the hallway having individual conferences with students about their research papers. The damage to his face was considerable. In e-mails from the hospital, he said he felt grotesque. He turned his head away as he looked at me and reached for the door knob. I reached for the door at the same time to enter the password, and when his hand almost touched mine I jerked it away.
I couldn’t look at him then. I unlocked the door and let him into the room while I continued the conference with my student. When I entered the classroom a few minutes later, he was sitting in his usual seat, staring at the other students and not knowing what to say. I could see how awkward he felt, but I had to ask him for the doctor’s release.
|In Flugzeug, he writes about a man
trying to escape East Berlin in a
homemade airplane, after receiving
a letter from his wife.
It is that face I see now, not the face of the happy boy who always had something bright to say in class, but the face of the boy turning his head to the wall as he passed me later that night, saying sorry as he passed because he had to walk by me again.
It was that face I remembered as I told my class he’d died. They sat in their desks crying, not knowing what to say and wanting me to say it for them. And I didn’t know how to respond or how to hold them when they came to me wanting to be.
In conversations with his mother later, I learned he didn’t die from a heroin overdose as his friends suspected. The drug was discovered in his dorm room but not found in his body during an autopsy. Pathologists believe his death may have been caused by damage done to his heart from epileptic seizures in childhood in combination with the virus he’d had the week before they were unable to identify. His family may never know.
Three days before he died, he wrote his brother Mark, “At times, when I lose hope and feel trapped, I have to keep reminding myself that I have an indispensable intellect. We both do. We are tortured souls who have hit some bumps in the road. Nevertheless, we must keep living so that one day the world can benefit from what we have. You are special in so many ways. You have an amazing sense of humor, are quick witted, and have unparalleled insight. You have to recognize that we aren’t your average joes. Grades and the legal system aside, we both have the potential to change the world. Get this shit over with, so that you can fulfill your destiny. I would be nothing without you, and I need you to be strong for me, [for our family], and all the people whose lives you have touched. I love you bro. Keep at it.”
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