Tuesday, June 17, 2008

fame, fortune and freshmen

1. that’s tight

Yesterday I visited three freshman creative writing classes at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, where my sister Cathy teaches math (“Don’t tell fifth period you’re my sister,” she warned me. “Most of those kids have me for fourth period math and they hate me”). I decided I would read a little bit of The Commuters, lead them in a writing exercise, then answer questions about being a writer.

The excerpt I chose was from a story about a 16-year-old gay kid who lives in South L.A., works as a dishwasher in West Hollywood and gets called a fag at school.

“Is it okay if I read a story where a kid gets called a fag?” I asked Jen, their incredibly nice teacher, in our 30-second pre-class conference.

“Definitely—but I’ll warn you, you will get a reaction. Nothing overt, but a lot of snickers and stuff. I hate to say it, but they’re pretty homophobic,” said Jen.

I wanted to read the piece to challenge them, and to challenge myself—I’m way too used to reading for fellow travelers. What’s the point of writing a story about a queer high school kid if you can’t handle reading it to high school kids?

Jen knew her class well—there was some uncomfortable laughter, but overall they listened quietly. Although some of them might have been sleeping, now that I think about it. But there were two adorable gay-looking boys in the front row of one of the classes. They wore skinny jeans and shiny T-shirts. One had a faux-hawk and one had spirals shaved into the side of his head. Both looked like they tweezed their eyebrows.

At the end of my reading, in which the 16-year-old gay kid tweezes his eyebrows, one of the boys looked up at me and said, “That’s tight.”

I know it’s a cliché, but that made the whole day worth it. That, and the boy in fifth period who came up to me after class and told me how much he liked writing and how he’d been working on fan fiction stories and wanted to know if teenagers could get published. I told him about S.E. Hinton and encouraged him to post his fan fiction online and ask for reader feedback.

2. yes, i’m extremely famous

These moments made up for the loud boys in every class who asked questions not because they cared about the answers, but because they liked the sound of their own voices, and the barrage of questions about exactly how rich and famous writing had made me.

I sort of wanted to say, “Yes, I’m extremely famous. That’s why you’ve never heard of me.” After three periods of breaking the news that I’d made a total of about $300 from my writing, I started to feel like a little bit of a failure.

“Now you know how I feel,” Cathy commiserated later. “Even when they ask me stuff like, ‘Are you married?’ and ‘Do you have kids?’ I feel like a loser. Then they ask, ‘Do you even have friends?’”

I know the lesson here is to not judge oneself by a 14-year-old’s value system (although sometimes I feel like America as a whole has a 14-year-old’s value system). As Cathy pointed out, their world is divided into people they know and people they see on TV. The latter group is rich and famous. If they don’t know me (and especially if I’m grown up, white and given a fanfare-laden introduction by their teacher), I must be rich and famous.

I wanted to say, “Do you know how hard it is to be an adult? To just manage to not live with your parents?” (I also found myself wanting to say things like, “When you talk out of turn, you’re not just disrespecting me, you’re disrespecting your fellow classmates”—my creative-writing brain was not very creative that day.)

But they’re 14, and all 14-year-olds more or less believe they’re going to be famous someday. So while I tried to share a cheerfully packaged dose of reality, I also tried not to burst their collective bubble, and I tried to let a little of their hopefulness rub off on me. Maybe some of them will be famous writers. It could happen to any of us.


Peter Varvel said...

I agree - that is, indeed, tight!
So, I'd like to say Thank You! for your outreach to youth, and the effort you're making, even when it's not all wine, roses, and free bubblegum.
One early lesson I've observed in other writers' careers is that getting published does not mean you automatically become rich and famous.
At a reading, one of my favorite authors said he discovered that "being a writer means you write."

Laura and the family said...

It is a good thing you are reaching out of today's youth! We all need more like you.

This GREAT example reminds J.K. Rowlings because she started out with little economy (SSI.) Then,she became rich because her patience of writing paid it off.

One of my favorite authors, Jonathan Kozol, "Savage Inequalities: Children in America's School." You will be surprised about today's school and teenager's society. I highly recommend you to read because I thought this author wrote several poignant stories.

Keep it up on encouraging teenagers to write essays. I have done TONS OF TIMES with my teenager students.

Tracy Lynn said...

The nice part is when they get out of school, and suddenly develop a new appreciation for the adults of their youth, because it's not all sleeping in, staying up and eating whatever you want, is it?! Unless you're me, because I'm basically living a 14 year olds dream. You know, without kidneys.

Cheryl said...

PV: I agree--that's the only real definition. Of course, that makes me Not A Writer for weeks and occasionally months at a time....

L: I'll have to check out Jonathan Kozol. Thanks for the tip!

TL: There's a huge part of me that still gets a thrill knowing I can buy sugary cereal without my mom vetoing it. Sometimes adulthood is all it's cracked up to be.

Don Cummings said...

OH I love this post.
I can't really add to it. I think people should just get away from this comment and reread this post.

Cheryl said...


Ms. Q said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ms. Q said...

We all want to be rich, we all want to be famous - not sacrificing your dreams or your dignity to get there is the hard part.
You're a success by those standards, and so is Cathy.

Cheryl said...

Thanks, Ms. Q. And let me tell you, it's especially hard to maintain dignity when trying to shout over a bunch of freshmen who are busy texting each other.

Veronica said...

you ARE a famous writer.

Cheryl said...

It's true that I am recognized at several Starbucks. I am known for ordering nonfat lattes and for having the same name as the mom of the manager of the new Pasadena location.

Prince Gomolvilas said...

Yay! Reading that except in that class was AWESOME!

Cheryl said...

Thanks. I think it's the first step in making the world safe for male eyebrow-tweezing.

Veronica said...

you're famous in MY world! :)