Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Saturday, October 5, 2013

"Can We Have Friday Today?"

Early in my days teaching middle school, I began a routine with my classes: free writing on Fridays.  We first called it "Friday Writing," but then, as the years went on, it wasn't always Fridays, so it became "Free Writing."  On those days my students and I (yes, I participated, too) wrote about whatever we wanted to for about 2/3 of the period; then we took turns reading aloud (those who wanted to).  Most of the time, it was a lot of fun.

Over the weekends, I would read the papers, make comments, notice technical things we probably ought to work on, and--in many, many many cases--I would be surprised and delighted by what I found on the page. Such imagination, humor, candor, passion ... I was endlessly entertained.

Sometimes, though, a kid would come up to me at the beginning of class and say, "Mr. Dyer, I can't think of what to write about."

And I, flippant, would reply: "Write about what it feels like when you can't think of what to write about."

After saying this, I usually received the blank (derisive?) stares I deserved, and of all the hundreds of times I said that, I don't think too many (any?) of my students ever launched into that topic.  Usually they figured out something else to do--like, oh, what it's like to have a stupid English teacher.

The kids wrote in every conceivable genre (essay, story, letter, poetry, play, hybrid) and in every conceivable tone (anger, joy, sorrow, depression, excitement, irony, etc.).  For me--and I think for many of them--Fridays were a highlight of our weeks, and that was why, on some boring Wednesday, a kid would sometimes say, "Mr. Dyer, can we have Friday today?"

I still have all of my Friday Writings jammed in several old blue notebooks (some of them have found life-after-death on Amazon/Kindle!).  And I know via FB that some of my former students still have all of their work, too, some of it dating back more than forty years.  I used to tell them: "Don't throw away your writing.  You will never have a better measure of how you thought as a young person."  They would sometimes look at me strangely: Why would I want to know that?  Maybe some of them know now?

In May 1976, English Journal featured on its cover an essay I'd written about Friday Writing--"When Kids Are Free to Write."  I was so excited, checking the mailbox frantically every day--so I was thrilled when Joyce, who was home that day, got the copies that had (finally!) arrived, packed up our son (not yet four), drove the eight miles to Aurora from Hudson, walked in my room, and handed them to me in front of my students.  Who were simultaneously happy for me and deeply puzzled (What is English Journal?).  I was thirty-one years old and thought, surely, that a Pulitzer would be forthcoming.  (I'm still waiting.)  I did, however, win an English Journal Writing Award that year--further puzzling my students.

Anyway, Free Writing gradually faded away in the 1990s when 8th Grade Proficiency Tests arrived in Ohio, and writing became something to test rather than to enjoy and learn from.  The state insisted that there are only three types of writing, you see: arguments, narratives, explanations.  My students knew better, of course.  On Fridays, they'd been wandering through a wild garden of discourse.  Never mind.  Tests matter.  And Free Writing began its journey along what Emily Dickinson called "the route of evanescence."  And soon I was pounding away in class at arguments, narratives, explanations ... and counting the days to retirement.  And feeling inexpressibly sad.

And, oh, by the way: I just answered today my old question: "What do you write about when you can't think of what to write about?"

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