Note: This is long and rambling and boring, but I’m following up on my earlier post about the creative writing class that I taught. You may want to skip it, I just have to finish what I started. If you’re a glutton for punishment and want to start at the beginning, here’s part one.
So where was I? Oh, yes, I was telling you about the class I taught to fourteen developmentally disabled adults, and the book they wrote. Oh, and how the place where I taught it never asked me back, because they accidentally confused me with a satanist or something.
I’m having a harder time writing this than I’d anticipated. The story is long, and the explanation of how they did it is longer. Tears keep welling up as I remember each of the class members. No matter how I word this, it’s going to sound condescending or patronizing. I don’t want to use words like “innocent” or “childlike” or phrases like, “full of wonder,” though these descriptions are accurate.
For the few weeks that this class lasted, I shared the company of people who were so unique, so individualistic in their thinking, and so much less “bullshitty” than many adults I’ve encountered. This isn’t to take away from us non-disabled people. It’s just that we’re wired in a more complicated way than these folks. We’ve learned more tricks, more defenses, we wear more masks- one for home, one for work, one for the rest of the world. My mentally challenged friends at this agency had none of this. It was a Bullshit Free zone, and I loved it.
I wanted everyone to start the class feeling like writers. I told them that at the back of most books, there is a short biography of the author. So they composed their own biographies. I asked them a few questions, and wrote their answers on index cards. Today, as I was rereading these, I started blubbering all over again, remember each person and what they were like. I’ll share their bios with you after the story.
The class members were a diverse mix of personalities ranging in age from eighteen to mid-fifties. Shawn had problems with anger at first, but ended up being a sweetheart. His girlfriend Sheila was quiet and polite. Mike bore a striking resemblance to Baby Huey; Paula was too shy to lift her head from the table for the first couple of classes. Mark could hardly speak or move at all, yet as he struggled through each nearly unintelligible word, no one rushed him, and no one was ever unkind or impatient. Some of them even helped translate things he said. Susie was sweet and gentle, Andrea was silly and feisty.
My favorite was a beautiful young man named José, who’d fallen to the bottom of a swimming pool at the age of two and nearly drowned. He lost much of his mental and physical capacities on that day, yet he was more eloquent than many adults I’ve known. Words were a struggle, but writing wasn’t. At the end of class, he brought me notebooks full of beautiful poems that he’d written. José most definitely was a romantic.
Next, we got down to the business of the story itself. The class had to decide what it would be about. It was fairly easy. This was during the Lord of the Rings craze, and they were all into magic and fantasy. They wanted a good old fashioned yarn about a princess, a dragon and a dwarf.
Grumpy old Shawn insisted that the princess’s name would be Sheila, after his girlfriend. In turn, Sheila insisted that the hero be named Shawn. The unique title for the story? “Sheila the Princess.”
All along the way, we discussed characters, plot, and description. Every part of the story was argued over, hashed out and the final decision voted on, from the color of the princess’s hair and the shape of the dwarf’s ears, to the manner in which the dragon would be slain. They would shout out their plentiful ideas, which I would write on a dry erase board. Sometimes they’d argue, but then they’d vote, and majority ruled. No one was ever upset if their idea ended up getting vetoed.
I had to figure out how fourteen people who could barely write their names could collaborate on an actual book. I brought a tape recorder in, and designated a seat at the head of the table as The Author’s Chair. Each person would be given approximately five minutes to tell their part of the story, with each author picking up where the last one left off. I would ask questions to clarify things, or if the class members wanted to interject or make changes, we’d stop the story telling for another vote.
At first, the tape player intimidated them, or they’d lean into it and talk loudly, as they would to a deaf grandparent. They soon got used to it though. My god, it was amazing to just watch them sit there, proud and in charge, going off on insanely wild tangents and painting their part of the story, one after another. They all helped each other, and when I say they argued, it was really more like a non-stop spirited discussion. They all treated each other with a lot of respect.
Before the last class, I transcribed the tapes. I didn’t change their words, but I edited a little for cohesion. I also added a few pictures that I found in Microsoft Word.
I took the pages to a printing place (whose name I won’t mention) to have copies made. I wanted two copies for each author– one for themselves and one for their families. I had a few made for the staff as well. The printer was so delighted about the project that not only did he not charge me, but he bound the books for free as well. They looked great.
The last night of class, I presented the authors with their books, and read the completed story to them. One of the staff members came in to hear it too. Everyone listened quietly while I read their tale of Sheila, The Dragon Master, and Pumpkin the dwarf. When I came to the words, “The End,” the class whooped and hollered, jumped from their seats and gave high fives all around. They autographed each others’ books, and basked in the pride that they felt for their achievement. It was a great moment.
We all hugged, said our goodbyes, and they left. The staff member sat in her chair as I cleaned up. I was still giddy from the whole experience. “It was such a great class,” I told her.
She looked at me through squinty little eyes and said, “Y’know what I thank? I thank the administrators ain’t gonna like this at all. You gotta remember that this is Arkansas. These people come from religious families and they don’t like all this supernatural stuff. They think it’s satanic.”
I was floored. I never considered that this would be considered evil. In fact, in my mind, it was all quite beautiful. While other volunteers were teaching check writing and floor vacuuming (granted, important skills for them to learn), we had actually created something tangible that the students could keep forever.
But you know, she was right. I was never called or thanked or invited back. That’s the way one expresses one’s dissent in Arkansas.
Here was my real thanks though. Every time I saw one of those students when I was out and about, I was greeted with a hug. They remembered my name, and they remembered our experience. They were still excited about it.
This was all about five years ago. My mother was visiting the town a few months back, and she recognized one of the students. It was Sheila (the Princess), and she was walking home from the bus stop in the rain. My mother had attended one of my classes and recognized her. She offered her a ride home. Sheila remembered the class, the story, and she told my mother that she still has her book.
I just hope she’s not casting any spells.
Next: Sheila the Princess. Really.