Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Calmer, More Thoughtful Response to the Allen Lee Story

All right. I'm back from rehearsal. I've calmed down.

*deep breath*

I've done some more research into the Allen Lee story and have found some details that have cleared things up a bit.

From the Kane County Chronicle:

When asked by a teacher to write an essay about anything he wanted, Allen Lee made references to violence, drug use, a song by the band Green Day, and the Super Mario Brothers video game, among other things.


The essay was the result of what Lee said was an in-class assignment in his creative writing class Monday. He said his English teacher, Nora Capron, told the students to write whatever they wanted.

They could even write “I don’t know what to write about” repeatedly for the duration of the class period, Lee recalled his teacher saying.

He said that he was not referring to himself doing the shooting and wrote the entire essay as a joke.

From CBS 2 Chicago:

The paper allegedly made a vague reference to a fictional school shooting in McHenry County but didn’t specify a school or district, a law enforcement source said.

Lee admitted mentioning school shooting in the essay, but downplayed it.

"At the very last sentence, I said that this teacher's method of teaching could lead to a school shooting," Lee said Wednesday. He said he'd intended the entire essay as a joke.

As I begin to piece this together, a picture comes to mind. I don't know if it's an accurate picture, but it is a perhaps plausible picture.

There's a classroom, and an English teacher who hands out a ridiculous assignment: mark your pencil across this paper for ninety minutes. She doesn't say that outright, of course; she calls it "free writing," which is an educational term designed to "free" students to "write" (it implies writing without boundaries, prescribed subjects, or rules -- without grammar or syntax even, if one chooses). She might even say "express emotion," as the Trib article stated.

But then she says "you can write 'I don't know what to write about' for ninety minutes if you choose," probably in a perky voice, intended to imply friendship and a sort of collusive understanding that really, when put to it, most of y'all students don't have much to say or maybe don't want to say anything, and that's just fine, I won't make you work at it! We're all good buddies, you and me!

And, if you're a clever student, like Lee might be, this could rankle a little. You could feel a little used, perhaps; you might understand, on a conscious or subconscious level, that here was your time, your opportunity to learn, being wasted. Squandered. You might even recognize the idiocy of the assignment and understand that whatever you turned in wouldn't receive any feedback beyond that of the most surface level -- "Nice job!" "Misuse of comma!" -- and wouldn't help you, at all, to become a better writer. (I recognized that, in high school, and was lucky that my family, in addition to taking the time to critique and support my writing themselves, helped steer me towards some faculty at the local college who were more than willing to read and comment on my work.)

And your mind might be full of a recent national event; a school shooting at a university (and, as a senior, you will be at a university next year) where the shooter was a person who looked somewhat, though not exactly, like you.

And you might write a story about an ineffectual classroom in a fictional school, taking care not to make it sound like your classroom in your school, sprinkling in a handful of pop-culture references because those are your only currency for wit (even Cole Porter, were he writing now, would throw in a reference to Super Mario), and ending your story with the idea that it might be classrooms like this that "lead to school shootings."

That's a dangerous statement to make. It even feels dangerous for me to write it in this blog. It feels disturbing, and I can understand why Lee's teacher was disturbed when she read it.

But then our fictional student (and our real-life one) gets arrested. He's over 18, so it will go on his permanent record and he will have to explain it away for the rest of his life.

And that, to me, feels even more disturbing.

I don't know what to do with this situation. There's something in me, deep within my gut, that tells me it is wrong to arrest high school students for writing stories. As a teacher myself, I've read plenty of student essays which have used foul language or racial slurs (believe it or not -- during my first years of grad school I taught an Introduction to Theatre course, and I would get some of the most appalling "play reviews;" the racial slur had to do with a student trying to fill up the page limit by describing how he went to Taco Bell before the show started, and he felt obliged to let me know his feelings about Mexicans). But I've never had an essay which disturbed me.

I've always had the grading ax to swing down on students who wrote to tell me that a certain play was "a three-hour piece of shit," with a reminder of our class discussion on academic vs. colloquial language written as marginalia. But I'm not sure the grading ax would work on Lee, particularly because I've got a sneaking suspicion that his story might actually be somewhat well-written. And how do you downgrade a piece of "free writing," anyway?

I suppose the smartest thing to do would have been to send him to counseling. Clearly Virginia Tech was on his mind, and perhaps he needed someone to talk to about it; to say that he was worried because was going to start college next year and he didn't know if he would be safe, or to say that he was worried about going to college and being stereotyped as another "silent-nerdy-creepy Asian guy," or to say that he was worried because he felt a bit like he understood why Cho did the shooting.

But they arrested him.

I guess I can't write any more until I read the story myself. My plausible scenario could be wrong, and Lee's work could be that of a deranged mind... who knows? (Even in that case, though, psych treatment would have been better than jail.)

As soon as it makes an appearance online, please let me know.

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