Chicago, Illinois, Spring 2000

POE TO THE RESCUE

It’s a warm Saturday morning in May, and as usual I’m sitting in a room full of YCA students. The constant noise of Division Street pours in through the open windows. Last week the sounds came from a Puerto Rican Independence Day parade, which, among other things, featured old men on tricycles. Today it’s the sound of cars, many the SUVs of local yuppies, who are rapidly taking over the neighborhood. We’re all officially appalled by the gentrification, sneering in an obligatory way at the well-heeled young adults and various developers who are improving properties left and right, but privately just about everyone is pleased that the neighborhood is now safe enough for young people to visit our office any time and stay as late as they wish.

Through the years, YCA students have come from every imaginable background. We have had Spanish-speaking kids from Puerto Rico, Mexico and Peru. Some of our black kids were born in Chicago; others were born in the South and moved here. One black girl is from Jamaica. One black boy’s father lives in Ghana. The white kids are from many places besides the United States, including Poland, Bosnia and Rumania. We have three Asian kids-Korean, Chinese and Filipino. We have had two Indian students. And then we have had “mixtures” like Janelle, whose background was Asian, Jewish, and Latina. “You look like United Colors of Benetton,” a reporter said a few days ago, unknowingly repeating the joke made by Liz during the very first YCA class. “Writing obviously attracts kids from every possible background.”

But it has occurred to me lately that while the variety of students makes us politically correct, these official categories of race and religion don’t begin to tell the story. The kids from our program-including the ones sitting across from me today-are diverse not because they are multicolored. They’re diverse because their writing is so varied-varied subjects, voices and forms. The kids write about the past, the present and the future. Some write about what they immediately know. Others rely on their imaginations-Annamaria, a girl from Rumania, is finishing a story that takes place on a Georgia plantation. They write mysteries. They write tight poems and loose ones. Visitors who study what these “city kids” choose are astonished that drugs and gangs play such a small part in their writing.

We’ve just read through our weekly newspaper, Sleazy Writer. I’ve reminded them that graduation is coming up (“NO THONGS”), that we have a reading at the Printer’s Row Book Fair, that we still have summer jobs available at a nearby school, and that the students who traveled to Africa in April will be making a presentation at the Chopin Theater. Finally, I announce that my daughter Sarah has started a learning center down the street. She’ll be teaching classes for little children and may be looking for volunteers. The YCA kids, whether they are sitting in chairs or lounging on the rug, listen with detached interest.

I am still overwhelmingly gratified that the program is working so well-both the scholarship program and the outreach programs we offer in the schools. I’m still very much involved in the teaching, but I’ve found some excellent people to help out. We have gained a citywide reputation. “Young Chicago Authors,” according to one journalist, “has made the city safe for young creative writers.”

But along with feeling a touch self-satisfied, today I also feel frustrated and annoyed and bothered. The simple fact is that these kids-these wonderfully talented young Chicago writers-have not been writing much at all lately. And what they have been writing basically stinks. This happens every spring, but for some reason this year I am much more bothered by the epidemic of indifference.

I have some prompts for today, but I’m not sure they’ll work. The kids will write a little; they’ll respond amiably. They’ll hang around the office afterwards. They might all go off and have lunch together. But that will be it.

The least I can do is tell them what’s on my mind, even though they probably know already. This doesn’t call for a lecture or a rant. I’d just like them to know that I want them to wake up long enough to write something worth taking seriously. I start by reminding them how important these classes are. “This is where so much of your good writing starts.” I list several recent pieces of YCA writing that began in class and ended up in a magazine or winning a contest. “I know the weather’s great and that you have finals, but give yourself a chance to write something powerful. We have two more classes, and that’s it. See if you can write something you’re proud of.” I pause. No more to say.

“So you want us to feel guilty.” Alan is talking. He’s a short kid who will attend Northwestern next year. He also plays in our band. He’s one of the few who have not stopped writing. Now he’s got a big smile.

“You bet I do!” Alan’s given me an opportunity to change into a slightly ironic tone of voice. “You all SHOULD feel a little guilty for squandering your talent. Grab the moment. I mean it.” I feel like really laying on the carpe diem angle, but I stop myself.

I’m about to describe today’s prompt when Alan starts talking again. “Why don’t we do something with an author? Remember all the great writing we had after you read us that story ‘Haircut’?” Grunts of agreement.

He’s absolutely right. The “Haircut” class was something special, and so were the other classes that focused on a single work. I’d read a story or a poem to the class. We’d talk about it. I’d make a few suggestions. And that would be all the class needed to start writing. But lately I have been relying on my own prompts. “Fair enough. Who should we read?”

“Whom.” I’ve been corrected by Martin, who spent last summer with his relatives in Ireland.

“Thank you, Martin. Whom should we read? I’ve got some copies of Poe stories. Do you all want to read Poe?”

There’s some talk, but most feel Poe will work. Molly, who plans to be a doctor, thinks it will be fun to read someone “we haven’t read since eighth grade.”

Without waiting for a minority opinion, I pass out copies of “The Tell-tale Heart.” I feel a surge of energy. I ask Chris, a tall sophomore from Hyde Park, if he’d like to read. I tell the class to pay close attention to the images. “Let your senses be taken in. Look for things to borrow.”

“You mean steal.”

“Thank you, Martin. Remember, you’ll use this story as a starting point for something original.”

As Chris reads, the class smiles, laughs, groans, winces and gasps. This happy little tale about the servant who smothers his master has not lost any of its punch. The class is especially enjoying it because they’re listening to it as writers, not as literature students.

When the story’s over, I ask for a quick recall. Sounds? “The beating of the heart.” “The squeaking floorboards.” Sights? “The bulging eye.” Smells? “The candle burning.” I fire off several “what if” questions. “What if someone else had told the story?” “What if the murder took place right away?” “What if the author used only one-syllable words?” “What if the servant had another motive for killing his boss?” The kids shout back answers. They’re awake. They want to write.

I toss out a few ideas, but not many. “You could become one of the characters. You could write a true story about revenge or guilt. You could take Poe’s first sentence and use that as the first sentence of an original story.” I tell them to consider using a strong narrative voice, to remember the connections between feelings and actions, and to create vivid settings. Above all, I want them to take this seriously. “This can be more than an exercise.”

Off they go-some to the duct-taped couch, some to desks, some to the rugs, some to corners, some to the stairwell, some to the back porch. I make myself a cup of coffee. The kids are writing nonstop and barely notice me as I walk from room to room. We now occupy the entire second floor of the building that we first moved into in 1993. Along with the original space with the mailboxes and the long table and the small office, we now have several computer rooms, a kitchen, and a darkroom. The room overlooking Division Street is a large classroom. Some walls are covered with posters, samples of student writing and Sue’s quilts. Other walls have large pictures of our kids in action. Visitors usually respond the same way: “This doesn’t feel like a school.”

I stroll through the neighborhood and run into my daughter Sarah and her dog. They’re on the way to her learning center. We stand at the very spot where our student was beaten up several years ago. Now the neighborhood is known more for its sushi restaurants than its gangs.

Ninety minutes later, I am back upstairs sitting with the class in a circle on the floor ready to listen. Two of our other teachers have joined the group. First I ask what the class now thinks of the plan to use Poe. A shrug and several smiles. Their notebooks and journals look full.

“Has anyone written something in the voice of one of the characters?”

A little guy with big hair named Ben raises his hand. “I’ve continued the story. The killer-servant is still talking.” He waits for a second and then begins to read:

“The irritating smiles vanished from the faces of the officers, doing much to relieve the horror that had overcome me. The old man’s heart continued to beat, but noticeably quieter than before. The men stared at me blankly for a moment. I slid down into my chair, as the nervousness that had been surging through my veins was replaced by an onslaught of quiet serenity. The men stood and moved toward me. Their voices grew harsh as they interrogated me. I revealed to them-and I admit that I did so with a certain amount of pleasure and pride-my flawless plan.

“Their eyes grew wide as I described what I had done with the dismembered body. The youngest of the officers pulled a pair of handcuffs from his belt and fastened them around my wrists. They asked me where I had put the crowbar that I used to pry up the floorboards, and after I told them, the officer who had handcuffed me went to get it.

“One of the remaining officers grabbed me by the collar and thrust his face up close to mine. With a great deal of anger and a small amount of fear in his voice, he questioned my motive. Ha! What did he know? He never had to endure the stares of the old man’s vulture eye. Thinking of that hideous eye immediately takes away any remorse that is building up inside my conscience.

“Of course the officer, lacking the aforementioned knowledge, had little insight into the cause of my actions, and therefore had no sympathy for me. He called me mad, and spat upon my face. Before my rage could get a firm hold on me, the younger officer returned with the crowbar. It took me a minute to identify the correct floorboards, but I did so, and the men went to work. As the boards were pried up, and the mutilated body was revealed, a look of disgust and sickness came over their faces. I begged them to open an eyelid on the severed head, so that they could see the reason behind my so-called crime. Oh, how I know that if only they had done my bidding, I would certainly have gained their sympathy. However, they did not do as I asked, and the officer who had previously said and done very little pulled out his baton and slammed it into my skull. Barely conscious, I watched a trail of blood trickle onto the ground as they dragged me outside so that I could be taken to the station. I am fairly certain that I fell unconscious at this point, for the next thing I remember is waking up in this dark, dirty cell, locked up like the madman they have accused me of being.”

Smiles and nods and then applause. We’re all impressed that this feels so “finished.” Chris likes phrases such as “lacking the aforementioned knowledge” and the other Poeisms. Rebecca thinks Ben has done a first-rate job keeping the narrator in character: “Little things still made him mad.” I tell Ben I’m glad he ended with the narrator still convinced he’s sane. I also tell him that I can’t recall him ever using a voice like this in his writing.

Ben, along with Alan, is one of the few students who had not lost interest in writing, so I am not surprised by his strong effort. Hyo is another story. Lately, she hasn’t been writing anything at all. Today she cheerfully offers to read her version of what the cops might have reported:

“Did I realize he was mad? Oh, yes, from the start, I knew something was wrong with him. As soon as he opened the door, he started making these nervous smiles. At first, I just thought he was on some kind of antidepressants. He kept smiling without any reason. He couldn’t walk straight and kept looking around the house the whole time my partner and I were there. So we couldn’t just leave him there, we being police officers and all, we decided to stay a little longer with him since he looked very lonesome living in that gigantic mansion all alone, without the old man. My partner and I had warm hearts.

“The second thing I noticed about his sick behavior was that as soon as we mentioned the shriek, he begged us to search the house. You know, we were there to ask him a few questions, not for investigating. My partner and I couldn’t say no since our job was to serve the citizens. We searched everywhere, even all the closet in the house. Boy, were we exhausted!”

More applause. Oscar points out that Hyo’s cops do “cop-like things.” He’s right. They ask questions. They search. They draw astute conclusions. They fear for the safety of the servant in the large mansion. Ben is amused by the phrase, “Boy, were we exhausted!” He says, “It sounds like something people say after putting up a tent.”

This is the most animated the class has been in a month.

Several students have written true stories-mostly revenge pieces. Danny, who lately has been promising much and producing little, describes a fight with his older brother Juan, who just happens to be a graduate of Young Chicago Authors.

Lexe gets even with her sister “for her stupid little tricks through the years.” She reads:

“I waited for what seemed like eternity until finally I heard my sister come out and climb into bed. Believing that I was sleeping, she said, ‘Good night, Lexe.’ I said good night from the closet and watched through the shutters as she rolled over and closed her eyes. I counted off at least a minute in my head and then I slowly started to switch the closet light on and off. I heard my sister turn to my bed and stammer, ‘Le-e-x-ce?’

“Finally I couldn’t hold it anymore. I started laughing hysterically because I knew I had gotten her, and I opened the closet door.

“It’s funny, though, every time I remind her of this incident, she claims that she knew it was me and was just playing along-I highly doubt it.”

I tell Lexe and Danny that I appreciate this peek at their darker sides. Writers should be able to show some bad qualities. Others think that Lexe had built suspense in a Poe-like way. (“I waited for what seemed like an eternity . . .”) Barth thinks that the last paragraph is important because it shows her sister’s character. And “It gives Lexe a reason to scare her one more time.” Good comment.

Oscar, perhaps our least-angry student, writes about someone he hates”

“I’m always close. I hear all the awful things he mutters. ‘Did you see what she did to her hair?’ ‘Why is she wearing those ugly and old-looking clothes?’ ‘Why is it that everyone dresses so weird?’

“What gets me even more mad is that he pretends to be a very nice friend and tells others how nice they look. What a liar!

“All I want to do is get up and tell him, ‘What’s the problem? Why is everybody less of a person than you are?’ But I don’t. I keep it to myself.”

Clearly, Poe has given Oscar a voice to express something that has been bothering him for some time. Previously, he has written about his family and his teachers. He has described his father’s factory job, but he has never talked about something like this.

Several students, like Alex, have started with the first sentence of Poe’s story and then written their own stories in the style of Poe:

“True! Nervous-very, very nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? I tell you now, ever so carefully, of the sinful deed, which I, so very meticulously, carried through. It was at the Corner Pantry store, a place which over the years of my childhood I had wandered into from time to time. Usually I did so for trivial, meager tasks, food, candy, and other such meaningless childhood necessities.

“It was through these adventures that I had become very well acquainted with the store’s clerk, as we made a commonplace ritual of discussing our day-to-day affairs. I had even made a regular habit of purchasing a bag of chips and a can of coke every time I came into the store. It was on this particular day, however, that I had something very different in mind.

“Why I even decided to do what I did, I know not, only that once my mind grabbed hold of the idea, I could not escape it. It soon became the very object of all my thoughts, and I began finding myself staying up for hours at night as my mind began to formulate my devilish plan. For weeks on end, I planned and schemed, and when that very day came, I was ready. As I approached the store, I made sure to do it with a certain swiftness, as not to attract unwanted attention.”

Naturally, we want to know more about the “devilish plan,” but Alex isn’t telling.

Annamaria has made up a story about a girl who must make a speech at graduation. “I like this character,” Annamaria tells us. “She does the kinds of things I would like to do.” Her story is in the first person:

“I took a seat in the auditorium. How dreadfully nervous I was. My hands trembled as I accepted the diploma. When the principal introduced me, I took a deep breath. Here goes nothing. I hurried to the podium so quickly that I didn’t see Michael, the star athlete, who had nothing better to do than trip me.

“I lost it. I took off one of my high-heeled sandals and aimed at his head. I scored. The students, the teachers, and the parents gasped. What did I do?

“I calmly put on the sandal. I flipped my hair back with one manicured nail and stepped to the podium as if nothing had happened.”

We agree that the “one manicured nail” is good stuff. She wants to keep working on his.

Time’s up; they’ll leave the papers here for us to type. “What should we do next week?” I ask as they are starting to leave. Several shout, “Mo Poe.”

That afternoon I meet with the other teachers. Jocelyn, who has been with us for several years, tells me how the current mystery magazine is coming along. Tim tells me the plans for drama next year. He’ll also help out with the summer activities. Koz, one of our graduates, is now one of our editors. I give her the Poe papers to type.

All of the other teachers are amazed by the energy of today’s class. Jocelyn asks me what happened.

“I listened to them. That’s what happened.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was going to give them one of my prompts, but they wanted to do an author. We did Poe, and you heard the results. You saw them all smiling and alert when they left. That’s what happened.”

I feel like gabbing. These kids have “so much to say.” They can do so much in one sitting. They can write about what they know, and they can write about what they imagine. They never stop surprising me. “Who would have guessed that Ben had such a good ear for someone else’s speech patterns?”

I go on and on about that all of this “proves” until Jocelyn finally jumps into the conversation. “It also proves that we should listen to what the little sweethearts want to do.”

“I’ve known this for 30 years,” I say. “I just forget sometimes.”