Leeann spent time this summer working with the Indiana Writers Center’s summer program “Building a Rainbow.” Along with other interns and volunteers, she went to the St. Florian summer camp in Indianapolis twice a week to mentor/teach youth 6-13 about the non-school side of writing. This is her reflection on the experience.
“What Happens If We Don’t Write?”
Sitting at a table of three very over-excited seven-year-olds is a daunting task, especially when you have one on your left, one on your right, and one in front of you. There’s no escaping. They have lots to say and no idea of when to stop. That day I had already learned about a trip to New York City, the best place to get tacos (Taco Bell), the probability of one girl getting a dog, and how one kid wouldn’t keep his shirt tucked in.
Oh, and of course who raised them, the actual writing prompt of the day.
Getting the kids to focus on that topic was quite the challenge. I tried using their name tags as “invisible barriers,” making it a game to see who could write the most, and simply asking non-stop questions until they would write down something just so I would focus my attention on the next unwilling writer.
Finally the girl on my right looked up and asked:
“What happens if we don’t write? What’s our punishment?”
Well, nothing. We could always tell the counselors they were not listening or following directions. But I would feel guilty punishing a kid who just didn’t feel like writing that day. There are lots of days I don’t feel like writing, and nothing happens to me.
Miraculously, an answer came into my head.
“I will be very, very disappointed in you,” I said.
The gasps of little children are the funniest things. Their eyes widen like my cat when she is begging for turkey lunch meat and the little bubble of air they inhale sounds more like a hiccup than a shocked gasp. But when they do it all at once, you know it’s serious.
This choir of inhaling sounded too serious. So I quickly followed up with an explanation for them.
“If you don’t write, I’ll be disappointed that I can’t read your stories” I said. “I love to read what you write each week.”
Faster than they could eat the tacos they loved, three little heads bent down and scribbled. For the two minutes before distraction hit them, I could enjoy the sound of pencils dancing along their paper partners.
The stories little kids tell you don’t always make sense and they don’t always sound true. Too often, these jumbled tales become background noise to the older people around and the kids’ childhood musings are lost. So when children are given permission to tell their stories, to say all they want, they want to tell everything. When you are six or seven, your hand does not let you speak as quickly as your mouth, so you gravitate toward speaking your stories first, writing them down second.
When that little girl asked me, “What happens if we don’t write?” my first thought was “nothing.” But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. If the youth of our world don’t write, we lose their voice. It’s a voice that may include run-on sentences, disorganized thoughts, and simple words, but it is a precious voice that sounds out the song of childhood, as captured by children.
This is the singing voice that I heard every week at Saint Florian. May it now be the singing voice you read in the pages of this book.