NUMBER 491 • 22 APRIL • WRITING
John came into my writing workshop in his high-top shoes — the heavy athletic kind — without laces, so they flopped on his feet like flippers. The backs were tromped down, and he had colored the tongues with a fluorescent orange marker. He didn’t wear socks, his pants were too short, and he was wearing a T-shirt even though the temperature was close to freezing. Boasting that he didn’t need a jacket, he rubbed his skinny arms and said he was cold. His dark curly hair was wild, uncut, and uncombed. His glasses were askew, and he looked at me through the bottoms of the lenses as he tipped his head back and spit out a greeting.
I could read parts of his past in his face — growing up in a troubled family, no money, not enough to eat, no new clothes, probably not even a notebook when school started. He had been teased, had no friends. I learned later that his family moved frequently, often to trailer parks or campgrounds where they would live in tents for months. School had been torture for John, and I was going to pay for it. When I spoke to him, he usually responded with a scowl, “So what?” or “I don’t care.” But sometimes he would form his hands into cat’s claws and hiss at me to show that he would have none of me, my smooth talk, or my games designed to seduce him into an education. He was a master at keeping everyone away.
John was as angry about the writing workshop as he was about everything else in his world. He hated it. He hated writing. He had nothing to say. He sat solemnly at his desk, searching for an opportunity to make trouble with classmates sitting near him. He refused to let anyone read his work and promptly shredded and dropped on the floor the folders I gave him to keep his papers in. He stated over and over, “This class sucks.”
John loved the computer, though, and would spend as much time as possible sitting behind one, glowering at anyone who came too close. Once he told me he was writing a story about a dysfunctional family where the dad hit the children all the time and there wasn’t any love. “It’s all from my imagination, you know,” he told me. Eventually, he would ask my advice about a line or a punctuation mark, or have me listen to something he was writing. He always cocked his head to the side, looked at me through the bottoms of his glasses, and said “Hmmm” when I answered.
One day, he approached my desk warily. “Do you want to read my poem?” he asked. He didn’t slide away this time, but stood near me as I took his poem and read it. I don’t remember any of the exact words or even the title. But the meaning of the poem and that moment are crystal clear in my memory. He had written a four-stanza poem about the hole in his life, about what was missing and where it had gone. At the end of each stanza, he asked the question, “Will it ever be filled up?”
John wrote about the way he viewed the world and how he felt about his place in it. His poems spoke of the things he felt were wrong with him and wrong with his life, as in “There’s Something Missing.”
There’s Something Missing
there is an empty place where
it should be, but I can’t
to fill it.
I have looked
at myself and said “what’s
wrong with me?”
but still there
is a space
that I cannot fill.
maybe I’ll find it someday
maybe I’ll fill
but until then
what can it be?
Skramstad, T. (1998) Reaching resistant youth through writing. Reaching Today's Youth. Vol. 2 No.4 pp 21-21