For the Birds

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Not Jose


There was this kid Jose. I feel okay using his real name because this was in New York, which, because of its melting pot qualities, probably has more than one Jose living in it, and because this was thirteen years ago and surely he’s moved on to other things by now.


Anyway. There was this kid Jose. He was elven at the time I knew him. He came to a Saturday writing workshop I co-taught. He wasn’t the best kid, truth be told. He was kind of a rotten kid, if we’re going to get down to it.


For instance, we took the kids to a nearby park—Riverside Park—and he was the sort of kid who hung back while everyone walked in a group and so I hung back too, for the purposes of due diligence, and discovered he was the sort of kid who also liked to kick at the little fluffy dogs of little old ladies who might also be walking through the park, stamping his foot down next to one such puppy so forcefully and so close to said puppy’s fluffy head that both the puppy and the little old lady jumped to the side, startled, or maybe even afraid.


He found this quite funny.


He was also the type of kid who had been kicked out of so many public schools in New York City for behavior issues that the city was paying his tuition to an exclusive and not inexpensive private school, one of the few in the city that would accept him.


That was the type of kid he was.


Suffice it to say, he thought writing was for the birds, except he used a different expression.


We were three graduate students teaching this one class of middle schoolers, maybe six or seven any given Saturday. The goal was to support these kids, give them time and space to write creatively but also to help them with writing-focused school projects.


Because I was male and hispanic and Jose was also those two things, I was volunteered to work closely with him.


But I couldn’t get him to write, no matter what I tried. He scoffed at all the writing activities we planned for the class. He scoffed at poems modeled after William Carlos Williams “This is just to say,” and scoffed at our attempts to get him to write and draw comic book panels, and he led, Saturday after Saturday, minor mutinies with the few other kids who would, of course, rather do anything else but write.


What I could get him to do, though, was tell stories.


The kid loved to tell stories, mostly about the bad stuff he’d done during the week. Fights, thefts, petty vandalisms, not-so-petty vandalisms. The one time he smashed a metal trash can on top of this one guy, the other time he kicked another guy in the face. Things he had stolen from school—Why? I’d ask him, and every time he’d answer with a shrug—and food he had stolen from the Saturday morning workshop, which wasn’t really stealing since the food was donated and given to all the kids who attended, but I didn’t tell him that.


Finally, I stopped him mid-story and told him, That, write that down.


What? he asked. Write what?


That thing you just told me about the trash can.


That? You want me to write about that?


Yes. Exactly.


So he did. He wrote a lot about it. He wrote for the rest of the class about that. And then the next week, I said, What else? What else have you done? And when he started to tell me, I stopped him and pointed at the page. Write it, I said. And he did.


And then one day he said, I already know what I’m going to write, and I asked him what he was going to write about, and he said, My brother, who just got out of jail and is back at home now. And that’s what he wrote, and it was good, and he liked that I told him it was good, and then I told him he needed to let us publish it in the workshop anthology, along with everyone else’s work, and he liked that okay so long as he could make it Anonymous, and then I told him he needed to read it for the assembly at the end of the semester, and that he didn’t like so much.


I ain’t reading it, man. You’re crazy if you think I’m reading it.


Fine, I told him. Don’t read it. I can’t make you, but it’s good and you should read it.


What about you? You read it, he said.


And that’s what I did. I told everyone it was written by Anonymous but that I liked it so much I was reading it on behalf of Anonymous, and at the end, when he saw how much everyone else liked it, Jose told everyone he could tell that he’d written it and then he got a copy of the anthology showed everyone, in case they didn’t believe him, and the rest of the assembly, with puffed out chest, he crowed around with his story about his brother, and that right there, that is when I decided teaching creative writing to kids like Jose wasn’t for the birds.–Manuel Gonzales

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