I asked my "Writing and Empathy" class to describe an orange, and they complied enthusiastically, describing its shape, heft, texture, smell: segmented and stringy, moon-shaped with crater-indented skin, citrusy, tangy, sweet.
|'Russian Welcome Poster' by Katie Cherrier and Adrienne Wiggins, 4th grade
I asked the same students to prepare to interview and describe Bryan Carey, an adult athlete with mental disabilities, and they froze up. Oranges were easy. People were hard. And people with disabilities -- my students seemed to believe -- were the hardest of all.
First problem: What to call him.
Second problem: How to talk to him.
Third problem: How to look at him -- wasn’t it rude to stare? My students, talented but self-conscious, had a hard enough time just observing and describing each other.
Carey, a "Global Messenger" who speaks publicly on behalf of the World Winter Games, would be visiting us in one week. It was a gracious expenditure of his time, considering he was busy training for upcoming snowboarding events. I asked each of my students to prepare a question they’d like to ask him.
"There’s nothing I want to know about him," one of my students said innocently. "Sure, I want to be a writer. But I’m more interested in writing about myself."
"Show, don’t tell," is a popular piece of writer’s advice. But my students couldn’t "show" in detail until they looked and listened. ("Staring" does have its place, after all.) They couldn’t "tell" until they gathered information and reflected on it. They couldn’t try to empathize with other human beings and convey that empathy to readers (a class goal) until they moved beyond themselves.
It was a tough sell convincing students that writing about other people didn’t need to be invasive, intimidating, or irrelevant. Rather, it was essential to understanding the world and ultimately writing about everything, even their own lives, with greater clarity and honesty. My students found it difficult to relinquish stereotypes until they’d spent time with people who were seemingly different from themselves -- and perhaps not really different at all. Special Olympics 2001 World Winter Games provided many opportunities to work on all these essential creative writing and life skills.
Even before the games began, students began to develop better observation and writing techniques. And they began to challenge their own preconceptions. When Bryan Carey visited our class, the students found it wasn’t nearly as hard to talk to him as they’d expected.
|'Skier' by Anneliese Eckmann, 3rd grade
Some of the students’ comments after hearing Bryan speak:
"He took such confident steps while approaching the front of the class."
"I love that he tries new sports. I found my favorite sport just that way."
"It was hard for me to relate to what he was saying, but whatever he said was said with a smile."
"He seemed like he loved life and had enjoyed his."
"His buddies help him with alpine skiing, snowboarding, and preparing speeches, and my buddies help me with the same sorts of things."
"I couldn’t understand all his words, but his confidence and his body language told a great story."
"I love how he described his (dishwashing) job at McDonald’s as 'pots and pans’."
"He seemed so happy ... I think that Bryan could teach me how to become a more hopeful and positive person."
Meeting Bryan was only the start. Many of the students in my class -- including those who had expressed initial disinterest or discomfort about the people with disabilities -- went on to volunteer, cheer for, watch and write enthusiastically about the World Winter Games. Every one of them responded to the events in different ways. In the end, some students who expected to write about themselves wrote, instead, about athletes and volunteers. And Steven Ning, a student who expected to write about athletes, wrote a personal behind-the-scenes story that says every bit as much about challenges and teamwork without ever mentioning pucks, skates, or ribbons. These young writers came a long way from describing oranges.
While Winter Games athletes were challenging themselves on the field, many Anchorage students were challenging themselves to observe carefully, reflect deeply, and find meaning in the human stories unfolding around them. I’m proud of every writer and artist, published or unpublished, who helped interpret and record such a triumphant event.