Metaphors Are Important: 1/4
As Kimba starts talking and typing more, and as I start to develop working relationships with other students, a lot of my assignments in lifeskills have become centered around writing. Writing, being a writer (and versus being a speaker), and teaching (is this possible?) writing have thus featured heavily in my thoughts lately.
Most of my concern lies with regard to voice.
I am a writing snob: not because I am the most eloquent, grammatically-adept, perfectly spelled starving artist to ever grace the world with her words (ask me about my journeys with commas sometime, or my passionate love affair with fragments and run-ons), but because I am a writer. I am not someone who writes; I am someone for whom there is no other option. This is the difference between “I am someone who (hatefully, regretfully, anxiously) talks” and “I am a writer.” My writing, a complete opposite to my speaking, is joy and confession and a need for both of these things, and I hope this is transparent.
I have talents that I’m not supposed to have: I can tell who crushes on who by how they stand, I can read strides, I can hear the tonal differences between an alto and a soprano singing the same line so clearly that to me they sing entirely different notes, and I can read through the lines and tell when a person doesn’t need to be writing at all. That, that is what makes me a snob, because I cannot abide a person putting pen to paper or fingers on keys when they don’t need to, when word choice is not as relevant and demanding and essential to them as breathing and syntax is about being correct and not about being evocative.
I am a writing snob, and some of the kids in lifeskills are my very favorite writers.
I could write pages of context about the impact of Kimba’s sparse, elegant, punch-to-the-gut syntax when he told me about being made to eat out of the trash, about spaghetti…no. Cheeseburger…no. Dogfood yes. Bad boy. Go outside. Stay in the yard.
(Because bad boys don’t get to eat food, but they do get to eat garbage, or wood covered in old lead paint, and they get put and kept outside, and this was the first time he ever sat me down and tried to tell me something, and he can use much more verbose syntactic structures but he was more concerned with making damn sure I understood exactly what had been done to him.)
I want Tanya to make a book from the story of her life she carefully encoded in her response to a picture I showed her of a balloon alone in the sky:
The boy bought a balloon, and it was red. He was walking and holding his balloon, and then he let go because he was stretching up to the sky, and the balloon flew away. And he wanted that balloon, but it flew away and it stayed in the sky for a month and then it got struck by lightening and exploded. Kapow! Pieces of it everywhere. The boy bought another balloon, and he lost that one, too.
(And the most important part of the story, she said, is that it is funny. It makes people laugh (because he loses one balloon, and then another). Not the boy though.
What about the balloons? I asked.
Probably not the balloons either, she confided.)
I imagine handing these manuscripts off to a crotchety old Honors English teacher I had, who writes a biweekly column in our local paper that makes me want to throw rotten eggs because he doesn’t need or even really want to write, it drips through his every sentence, he just wants to stand on a box and pontificate and evaluate, though never himself. I imagine handing him these snapshots of my students’ souls and watching his red pens slash through them. The honesty, the effect, the things they say outright as well as in silence (he had what he wanted, it disappeared, he got a replacement, that disappeared too, it’s a funny story except for how it’s not at all), the things these intellectually disabled children can do without even trying that he simply cannot…they wouldn’t matter at all.
He would be threatened by their voice.
These students have voice. Interestingly, one is a selective mute and another rarely speaks above a whisper, but when they have a story, when they need to make you understand, they have more of a voice than almost any other writer I’ve read. I’ll take Tanya’s understated she taught me how to play UNO as a reason for letting her bully pretend to be her friend over the cheerful notices the teachers and secretaries send out about field-trips and costume fees or the “Rural New Hampshire And The Single Girl” column in the paper. Tanya is honest. Tanya isn’t afraid to mean it.
A voice is something honest, a certain unique blend of said-and-unsaid, a particular flavor of syntax and vocabulary and control that stays with you long after you’ve put down the book and think you’ve understood everything you just read. It’s arresting and affecting, and my students have it in spades. I would submit that they’re really never had a choice in the matter and, given that few of them have had any practice in writing before this past month, they haven’t yet had a chance for it to be beaten out of them.
(There is one student. Her mother refuses to believe she is intellectually disabled, or treat her medical problems, and insists that she must do the physically impossible and pass as normal. She is allowed to attend Special Olympics events, which her mother coaches for, as an assistant—she signs the other kids in and out and keeps track of scores, but she isn’t allowed to compete, or smile. She writes like a caricature, like a frightened and desperate mimicry of what she is told she’s supposed to sound like. She’s not allowed a voice. She can’t mean anything, and behind every sentence is a nervous laugh or a hiccuped sob.)
These students aren’t writing novels, and they don’t let their voices out outside of specific circumstances: quiet, time with their thoughts, accessible method of expression, a clear question, and so on—the sort of things every writer needs. But because they are intellectually and/or developmentally disabled, because they need help spelling or scrawling, because their syntax is alternately sparse and cluttered, because they aren’t even really supposed to have thoughts let alone voice, because different means harder means defective means not worth it…because of all of that, it doesn’t matter what they write or how well they write it.
(I find most publications too poorly written to bother with. I have a nightly debate concerning whether or not I should just erase everything I’ve written ever because it is so shitty. I want to emphasize, again, just how elitist I am about writing, how much of a snob I am, how low my expectations were when I sat down to write with them, and how much crow I’ve eaten this month.)
These kids are writers, and it doesn’t matter because it’s not allowed, because their writing samples will be collected and graded and judged more harshly, against higher standards, than any of my essays in AP English ever were (go ahead, read the NH Alt. Assessment Standards and see for yourself. Come into our room and watch how these kids have to prove that they’re sentient on an hourly basis, and then please tell me why I still feel surprised when I see their essays thrown in the trash). People with no voice of their own and no belief that a lifeskills kid could ever have anything to say are the gatekeepers of who gets listened to, who gets read, and they superimpose zombie faces and stutters over Tanya’s stories and say we really need to focus on her handwriting.
So you see, I’m supposed to teach writing, which is less a matter of direct instruction about commas and more a matter of facilitating practice in having a voice. Drawing is just looking, and singing is just hearing, and writing is just listening to your own voice. These kids need to be told, explicitly, repeatedly, by at least one fucking person, that they have voices, and they are valuable voices, and they deserve to be heard, and the first person they should want to listen to them is themselves.
It takes practice.
What I want to know is: how am I supposed to do this, and how can I justify doing this at all, when, as Kimba will be only too happy to remind you, the ones with voices just get their tongues cut out?