Write About It!

David LePere

David LePere

“Why do we have to write in our journals,” complained one of the teenagers during our 6-day backpacking trip.

“Because,” said my co-leader, “all of these lessons you have been learning out here translate into lessons for your life back home. You need to dig to find them…and that happens when you journal! Look, the challenges are pretty obvious out here. We can see ourselves for who we really are when we’re challenged by a physical task…we have to figure things out and respond. And, we can take this great self-discovery and do something positive with it.”

He continued, “Back home we get busy and distracted and just don’t take time to ask ourselves questions like, ‘What did I learn from this?’ or, ‘How might this help me in the future?'” He capped off his speech with a declaration, “So, if we are going to go to all the trouble of carrying these big heavy packs, sleeping on the ground, getting tired and being rained on, we ought to take the stories, insights and lessons out of this trip and use them for the rest of our lives. Now take your journals, and go find a quiet spot with a good view and do some writing!”

Journaling is a discipline. Journaling is also a tool of self-discovery. At Cherokee Creek Boys School, we know that chronicling interesting events or personal observations helps boys develop emotionally and gain insight. Journalling offers a time of quiet refection and an opportunity to come face to face with yourself…something that is often missing in our busy lives.

Cherokee Creek Boys School is a therapeutic boarding school for middle-school boys, ages 11-15, located in Upstate South Carolina.

posted by Shaler Black Cooper in Discovering What is Real and True and have Comments (4)

The Gift of Attention

Language Arts Teacher and Author, Butch Clay shares a powerful story of paying attention…in its many forms. And he offers the paradoxical challenge that can arise when we pay too much attention to one focus and miss the “heart and meaning.”

CCBS English Language Arts and Social Studies Teacher Butch Clay

CCBS English Language Arts and Social Studies Teacher Butch Clay

The assignment was to write a narrative, one true story, about a significant life event. “Make it about something special,” I said, “not  just normal, run-of-the-mill stuff.”

Ordinary is not what I am looking for here,” I said.

Writing in a rough and earnest hand, one student (now graduated and doing well in school) scrawled down a short “short” story that began well and ended well, yet never quite got off the ground. As a story about a momentous event, it seemed a plodding piece. Yet this short, simple story, in the end, became one I can not forget.

“Here’s my paper, Butchman,” he said, pitching three dog-eared sheets onto my desk, “It’s about a soccer game I played in; my dad drove me to it.” He was out the door and down to lunch before I read it.

Circling misspellings amd scratching notes in the margins as I read, trying to note the good along with the not so good, I thought, “Where’s the story here? If this is about a momentous soccer game, then when does the action start? Where’s the big moment?”

True, it was obvious that the writer had listened in class: Just as I had asked him to do, he made an honest effort to record detail, to write “one true story all on your own.” But as a story of a soccer game, this narrative had a big hole in it. It was about everything that happened before and after the game, but not the game itself.

“It’s a good draft,” I told him, “a good first effort. But in your second draft, I want more. I want you to really engage your subject. In this draft you set the stage for the big game: getting ready for the game, driving to the game with your dad, talking about nothing special on the way to the game. But then you jump to driving home from the game, grabbing a bite to eat, just kicking back and relaxing after the game. What you have here is good stuff, I see that you remembered well and wrote hard, but you’ve overlooked the most important part, the game itself. I need you to show me that game.”

“OK, Butchman,” I will try again, but I thought this was good. You said you wanted one true story, and that’s what I did.”

Came the second draft, three days later, a Friday. My young writer had trod the same ground again, earnestly reporting a set of detailed particulars about nothing in particular, about everything before and after the big game. That fact, itself, did not surprise me. What did surprise was that he had indeed rewritten his work; it was not just re-copied. Clearly, he was trying.

“OK,” I said, “I’ll take this for now. You did what I asked you to do; you rewrote the whole paper. That’s awesome; you get an honest “A” for effort. But your story still lacks one key part. We have to sit down next week and talk about how to fix this piece of writing.” It being Friday, I was, I admit, just ready to hit the road. I could let the dog lie till Monday, or so I thought.

Cruising down country roads toward home, with thoughts of my wife and young kids starting to well up through those of work and school, I found myself nevertheless returning to the soccer story. How does even a fledgling writer write a story about a soccer game that leaves out the game itself!

I dwelled on the soccer story so long that I finally caught myself chewing too hard on it all, getting too worked up. Finally, I moaned out loud, “Why am I stuck on this doggone short, short story.”

When I got home, my kids were at the door, waiting, Benjamin my six year-old wanting to build “Lego” trucks, Lanie my two year-old, to “wead books.” There would be time for both. I hated to put them off, they had waited so expectantly, but I had first to uncoil the knots in my head before diving headlong into Dr. Suess’s Hop On Pop or Sam and the Firefly.

I needed instead to dive in elsewhere, into the lake. I headed down a woods path I know well, down to my neighbor’s back cove to swim laps. I needed face time with my best friend, the only therapist I can afford…cold, clear mountain water.

Soon I was exactly where I needed to be, face down in the clear emerald green, watching the sunlight pour down into the water in long butter-colored beams, flecking off suspended sand grains – as thoughts float in the mind. But I found I could not out-swim my day; the story with a hole in it came back again.

And those thoughts turned too, in turn, back to my kids, now waiting on me all over again, back at home, up the hill, through the darkening woods, Lanie with her pile of books and Benjamin with a bucket brimming full of Lego bits and pieces.

I swam on anyway, pulling and kicking and gasping for breath long enough to at least reach agreement with myself on this much: I was exhausted. I made it back home again, just before night closed down the woods.

By now the kids were in bed, already asleep. I had missed them again.

Over dinner with my wife, I told her about the paper and all about how it had established a beachhead in my brain. I got it out of my pack and showed it to her.

“This kid writes well,” she said. “He definitely writes beyond his years.”

“But he never really tells the story,” I protested. “Its supposed to be a story about  a big deal, a big day in his life.”

“OK, well,” she came back, “since you’re such a genius, I would think you’d see what’s obvious. This story is not about the game at all. The real story here, the one true story, Shakespeare, is not about the game, it’s about the dad. The kid could give a rip about the game; he was with his dad. His team could lose fifty to nothing and he could not care less. His dad was paying him some attention.”

Attention! This is perhaps the most important lesson I have had to learn, as a teacher and as a father. Simple. Profound. Real. True. Unalloyed attention. Nothing else really matters, and a child will accept no substitutes. The hole in my young writer’s story represented the hole in his life. It was all about the particulars. And I am not pointing fingers here. This is a hole I dig all too well myself. Day by day it gets dug, a little or a lot at one time.

The gift of attention: the greatest gift we can give to a child. Itself free, and always available to be freely given.

This is the truest story I know, impossible to be outrun or for that matter, out-swum. And this is the edge I work, at school and at home. I have a long way to go.

Cherokee Creek Boys School is a “learning community that challenges boys and their families to discover what it real and true about themselves and the world around them.” And in this learning community we also know that our students are also our greatest teachers! Every day we are challenged to “practice what we preach,” and continue to learn and grow.
(And our “significant others” can be pretty smart, too!)

posted by Shaler Black Cooper in Discovering What is Real and True and have Comments (10)