Time to Think

Writing this from my in-laws' beach condo, I am sitting on the floor next to the TV.  (I'm not on the couch, which is far more comfortable, because I have to sit here to take advantage of the free, possibly-pirated Internet access.)  Rob is half-reading for his last semester of graduate school, half-watching an eager chef prepare an Old Bay Butter for a lobster boil.  Occasionally my husband emits exclamations of reproach or excitement: "Honey, LOOK how much fat was in that bacon!"

I am able to successfully ignore most of the show (and honestly, I don't mind cooking shows in general; they're one of the reasons I occasionally wish we had a TV.)  But in between bouts of artery-clogging enthusiasm, the commercials assault me like angry darts, piercing the balloon of my thoughts: loud, ugly consumerism, pelting your ears with furious speed until the show picks up again.  There is no time to absorb the information, no time to think about what I just learned and what it means.

Yes, I realize this is a cooking show, not a Joyce novel.  But this constant input of information is something we encounter all the time, and a lack of think time almost always accompanies it.

As a disenfranchised Creative Writing teacher, I want to encourage my students to think beyond mere comprehension of what they read.  What do they think about the characters, the moral, the situations in which the authors place their creations?  How do these books matter to them?

At Michael's last week, I found some pretty notebooks on sale and bought a dozen, one for each member of the class.  Somehow, this tiny personal expenditure transformed an assignment into a gift: the students clustered around them with squeals of approval, eagerly tearing off the plastic and inscribing their names on the covers.  I told them I wouldn't grade them except for completion, and they'd have five or ten minutes to think and write just for themselves.  Sharing was optional.

The first day, I asked if anyone wanted to read a response to the question about a "secret life" they might lead or like to lead.  No takers.  But the second day, I asked if they'd ever been part of a relationship that was discouraged by their friends or family.

No hands for a couple of beats, and then a girl in the back shyly told us about a guy she'd dated whom everyone had told her was trouble.  Guess what?  He was trouble.  Several of her friends smiled in support of her -- probably the same ones who had told her to stay away from him.

Then a girl in the front told a very different story.  She had been friends with another girl in middle school, one who was famous for arguing with authority figures and ignoring obligations.  After some time, she asked the girl why she was so intent on causing trouble, and gently suggested that if she tried respect first, she might find it would come back to her.

Over time, she said, her friend began to change.  And eventually she thanked her for that conversation -- thanked her for being a good example as well as a friend.  My student's voice grew thick as she it formed the words, and there were murmurs of approval from her classmates, who learned an important lesson: Sometimes the rest of the world is wrong.  Sometimes the light can overcome the darkness.

My ulterior motive for this project?  At the end of the year, I'll have twelve pretty notebooks full of material for my literary magazine.  But I also hope, truly, that this exercise will give them time to think.