Monday, May 21, 2007

Reading, Writing, and Being Arrested

by Barbara D'Amato

You’re eighteen years old and a straight-A student. Your senior year creative writing teacher asks you to write an essay expressing emotion. You do.

Shortly thereafter, you’re arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. You are forbidden to return to school.

Bomb threats, falsely ringing a fire alarm, even dialing 911 for no reason could be called disruptive behavior. But completing a school assignment?

The ACLU Illinois spokesman says that the element of “disruption” does not occur when an act is done in private, as when a paper is handed to a teacher.

This happened to Allen Lee of Cary, IL. The April 25 Chicago Tribune carried the story and then several suburban papers, various editorials, and eventually a huge number of blogs. It’s become a major Chicago area issue, as maybe it should be.

The kid was asked to produce an essay expressing emotion. Express an emotion? Well, let’s see. Is there a teenager who is NOT angry about something? Well---mm. Gotta be one around here someplace. Hand up over there? No? Well—

If a teacher wants a student to write about emotions and let himself go, maybe the teacher had better say what emotions are permissible. Love, hope, and fear, in this case, but not anger, apparently.

Tell you what. Maybe you can write about how warm and fuzzy you feel toward your parents, and by the way, puppies are cute, too.

The kid had never been in trouble with the police. He had begun the process of enlisting in the Marines, who then discharged his application.

The content of the essay had not been made public at first, but more inflammatory parts soon were, leading the kid and his parents to release the whole thing. Yes, it had nasty language. What may have caused the whole uproar is the part that insults the teacher, calling her a control freak.

In any case, there’s no need to explore the details of this particular case. It should have been handled by an experienced counselor, to try to decide whether Lee was actually a threat to anyone. Not by calling the cops. Not by throwing him out of school a month before graduation. People have been skittish since Virginia Tech, but the gunman there had given off many bigger warning signs.

It’s not necessary to eviscerate creative writing classes to achieve some sense of safety. I wonder whether those of us who daily put ourselves in the minds of angry and murderous people can give some help to the creative writing teachers. How do we do it? How personal is the bad emotion? How do we know where to stop?


JD Rhoades said...

And let's not forget...Allen Lee is Asian.

Post-Virginia Tech, being an angry Asian kid, or even portraying yourself as one in print, is now probable cause.

Maryann Mercer said...

Without having read the essay, my thought would be that the teacher should bear part of the blame for not setting guidelines. Giving Allen Lee carte blanche meant allowing him total freedom of expression...and I assume that wasn't the teacher's real aim. That said, someone as intelligent as Mr.Lee might have tempered his language unless his sole intent was to cause controversy. Once I read the piece (if someone can tell me where to find it online), my views could change. At this point, I think the incident itself has probably done more damage than the completed assignment.
It seems both parties needed to choose their words more carefully. Authors do that every day when they balance their stories. Maybe that is the key. Thinking before speaking should apply to writing as well.

Barbara D'Amato said...

You can see the whole essay at,042707lee.article.

It's got violent content, sure, but so has much of my stuff. And this is a kid without the other elements of the Virginia Tech killer. I agree with jd rhoades that the fact that Lee is also Asian may have spurred the overreaction.

Maryann Mercer said...

Thanks Barb. After reading both the essay and the author's note, I think perhaps Allen Lee did his essay as a statement AND to push his teacher's buttons, particularly easy to do if she is nearing retirement and isn't able to cope with today's classrooms...sad but we see it even here in Champaign to an extent. I doubt he thought there would be as much backlash, which explains his explanation for his train of thought. But, especially in the light of VT, he might have stopped to think a bit more before turning in his assignment. And yes, I agree with both of you. His ethnicity did play a role, but I think this paper turned in by anyone else might have caused almost as much controversy too.

spyscribbler said...

I agree. It never should have gone to the police, never should have gone where it did. That's horrible.

I know a lot of young men who are angry. At that age, many of their hormones are raging like their 5 - 8 grade girl counterparts.

We can't predict which ones will control their anger, and which ones will become dangerous. We just can't. It is THEIR choice. If they are not given the choice, we can never know for sure what they will do. You just can't punish someone for thoughts.

Who hasn't been angry? Especially as a teenager?

This kid has the right to a whole lot more anger than he did have, before this incident. If he does go psycho, who would be to blame? The teacher for letting this essay screw up his life? Or will they pat themselves on the back for "catching it early?"