For one week in July, with another writer, I spent four afternoons with kids from ages twelve to sixteen in a free teen-writing camp at our Island library. Co-sponsored by the Bainbridge Library and Field’s End (my organization) we used writing prompts to start the afternoon off, talked a bit about craft, and then after time to write encouraged them to read their work in a circle of peers. I forgot to mention the all-important snack that was provided. Twenty kids can blow through a lot of food.
When I was twelve I spent most of my summer outside or with my nose in a book. The highlight was the weekly bookmobile that came to our village. If I wrote at all it was girlish concerns in my red-leather diary. Despite “duck and cover” and a sporadically discordant family life, I remained largely unaware of how the world worked.
On the first day of camp, we went around the room and introduced ourselves: Name and what we were writing or the genre we preferred. I loved how Margaret, my partner in the camp, referred to everyone as “author.” The first time she said it I felt a ping in my heart. Imagine being called author at that age? How wonderful.
Picking up on her permission to take themselves seriously, they said astounding things (to me – still back in my own childhood). “My novel is about….” Or “I’m working on several short stories….” There was nothing sheepish or immodest about their self-described work in progress. And as I discovered through the week, many were very fine writers and serious about it. Only a few kids had been driven (in both meanings of the word) by their mothers—simply doing the line-up-stuff, parent thing? Seeing a budding genius in their child? Or would-be writers themselves before life got in the way?
The kids, with cookies stacked next to their writing notebooks, squirming in their plastic chairs, filled the room with a mix of sweaty energy and hear-a-pin-drop focus. They were often working on: dystopian sci-fi, war of the worlds, grim invaders from other planets, or a secret, torturing government. I set my face at neutral but wondered what have we done to these kids? Or is this still imagination at work? And, did their parents worry or even know what they were reading and writing? One super-dad reminded me that most of our campers had been born after 9/ll. This is not just their writing world, but their real world—a steady diet of mayhem with theme music, video games, and movies they absorb like the sponges they are.
I felt a wave of relief when, working with them one-on-one, I came upon a story about the hazards of simply being their age—dorky parents who make stupid rules and mean-girl clicks that are their own kind of terrorist group—the kind I remembered.
By Friday, I admit to having serious kid fatigue and looked forward to having my afternoons back, being an “author” myself, and catching up on the news. That’s when I saw the pictures of the twelve-year olds at the U.S. border and my heart broke. It broke for their parents and for these kids who could have been my kids, only their backpacks had carried them thousands of miles away from home, not simply to the library for writing camp.
Find out more about my writing-camp colleague at www.margaretnevinski.com and Field’s End at www.fieldsend.org.