Darndest Things

Kids say the darndest things.

If I mentioned that Linkletterism to the college juniors and seniors in my classes, I’d get a blank look or worse. First, they would have no clue who made the phrase famous. Worse, they wouldn’t want to be called kids, even by someone with three kids all a smidge older than they are. More to the point, they wouldn’t want me to treat their thoughts so offhandedly.

Indeed, there’s no way I could treat what they say lightly. Early each semester, I ask students in my magazine-writing class to do a short autobiography. I’d like to get to know them a bit and see how well they write. Usually, I get far more than I bargained for. These kids, it turns out, come with baggage.

“I was born in Bethlehem,” one young fellow writes. “Not the one you’re thinking of. Not the one with mangers, wise-men or Saviors. Rather, it’s a ratty industrial town in Pennsylvania whose sole claim to fame is the Philadelphia Eagles training camp at nearby Lehigh University.”

From there, my student says his chief desire is “to avoid the fate” of his parents. He doesn’t want “to be doomed to live decades with a person I don’t really like to simply avoid being alone.”

Then there’s the promising young lady who attended the same all-girls Catholic school as her mom, an Indian immigrant. “I was only 14 years old when my mother received a phone call from my principal telling her I was being expelled from school for being gay,” she writes. “It wasn’t my ideal ‘coming-out’ story, considering I had never brought up my sexuality with my family before, and equally, the repercussions were not ideal.”

And there’s the bright guy whose dad developed such severe obsessive-compulsive disorder that he lost his job, couldn’t drive for fear of killing someone and flipped light switches hundreds of times. “I couldn’t handle people thinking I was living in a comedy when in reality, I was listening to my mother cry herself to sleep in the spare bedroom,” the fellow writes. “I had to stop playing baseball because we couldn’t afford it and I didn’t have anybody who could drive me to practices.”

Whoa, brother. The pieces tear my heart out. I’m not sure whether to reach out to a school shrink to get in touch with the kids (or perhaps to counsel me on how best to take in such life issues). Certainly, Art Linkletter’s kids raised no such problems.

But, after talking with other faculty here – and listening to my own inner counsel – I do what I believe journalism instructors should do. I look at the revelatory work as pieces of writing. Does the writer make his or her points well? Does the piece hang together? Does it invite readers in, set a nice table for them and give them a solid meal? Are there good ledes, nut grafs and kickers? Painful as the accounts may be, do they paint a true and accurate picture? Does the writer do the job with grace and wit?

Today, I put parts of such pieces on the screen for the class to discuss. I read aloud or paraphrased some sections, praising them for their color or nice turn of phrase. I got excited about the anecdotes they sketched out. Unless I had their permission, I didn’t say who had written the more personal material. I kept that anonymous, or at least as anonymous as it can be since the students peer-edit each other’s work.

Like any reader, I prize an honest and thorough account of challenges someone has faced. I encourage the students to tell their stories well, of course, and I’m enormously pleased when they do. But I must admit that I’m pained by their tales, and grow to like them for their candor. It’s real life, folks, and that can be tough. I also wrestle with the temptation to grade them more for honesty than style or organization, something that takes a challenging dose of hard-headedness.

The fact is, as I tell my students, that everyone carries baggage. As we get older, we learn how to hide it better, I suppose, or it becomes less of a burden. It’s because they are kids, I suspect, that they are willing to share so much of what weighs them down now with a stranger, some guy at the front of the classroom who they barely know but who aims to make them better writers.

So is teaching an easy job? Not always. Is it worthwhile? Absolutely.

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