I’ve been counting the days since the Virginia Tech shootings to see how long it would take for a school to overreact to a student doing something that disturbed them. For example, following the Columbine shooting, scores of students around the country were suspended from school because they posted goth-themed content on personal websites, and worried that somehow goth culture would influence them to kill, kill, kill. Some of these students managed to get the last laugh, either through lawsuits or court injunctions.
So now I read on CNN that a straight-A student named Allen Lee is facing two counts of disorderly conduct – for a creative writing assignment. His teacher told the class to “write whatever comes to your mind. Do not judge or censor what you are writing,” according to a copy of the assignment. So Lee decided to push the envelope, writing the following:
“Blood, sex and booze. Drugs, drugs, drugs are fun. Stab, stab, stab, stab, stab, s…t…a…b…puke. So I had this dream last night where I went into a building, pulled out two P90s and started shooting everyone, then had sex with the dead bodies. Well, not really, but it would be funny if I did.
Tasteless? Sure. Inappropriate for a high school classroom? Likely. But school officials were so freaked out that this honor student might suddenly go postal on them that they decided to call the police. He was arrested and now faces up to 30 days in jail for what he wrote.
“In creative writing, you’re told to exaggerate,” Lee later said. “It was supposed to be just junk. … There definitely is violent content, but they’re taking it out of context and making it something it isn’t.”
I can understand if the school got nervous about what he wrote and called him in for counseling, or at minimum, a friendly chat with him and his parents, particularly if the school had ever had concerns about his mental stability. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.
I think back to the kinds of stuff I wrote in high school and I wonder if in today’s climate I would have gotten suspended or arrested. For example, in one creative writing class I recall writing about cannibalism (two buddies crashing their plane on a deserted island, going nuts and hunting each other down for a nice dinner) and suicide bombers (a poem from the perspective of a terrorist’s final thoughts as he counts down to the moment of detonation). I also remember doing a full chapter of a story that could only be described as a mediocre first-person ripoff of Platoon – soldiers swearing, murdering civilians, taking drugs and everything in between. Come to think of it, everything I can remember writing for that class involved violence. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised – I was reading a lot of Stephen King at the time, did papers on him, and even corresponded with him once.
How did my teacher react? I generally got A’s on my assignments, plus a brief introduction from her on Ludwig Wittengstein, nightmares and the creative consciousness. I loved creative writing in that class because it gave me a chance to write about stuff I would never do or would never believe myself, but could explore from the perspective of very flawed characters, even when written in the first person. My teacher was also smart enough to get us to talk about why we wrote and why, so we could explore the root causes of inspiration.
I loved that class because I felt safe that I could literally write whatever I wanted. I felt secure that the teacher and my classmates knew the difference between me and my characters. I’m so glad I’m not in school now; the chilling effect is palpable. -andy