A spike-haired middle-schooler saunters late into the room, for our Writing Humor Saturday workshop at a Contra Costa public library. Her pitch-black hair matches her hat and the painted rims around her eyes; these complement the black scarf, jeans, sharp boots and jacket.
Her skin is stark white.
Forty-nine other students from the San Francisco Bay Area -- Fremont, San Jose, Benicia -- stare at the Vampire Girl. She glares back.
My teaching partner leads a word game; next we tell funny stories. Vampire Girl slumps, looking disinterested. I read funny writing prompts, she picks up her pen with one hand and unzips her jacket with the other.
As pens scratch along the page, we walk around answering questions, offering hints. I give wide berth to Vampire Girl. She's leaning over her paper, guarding it as she writes. Soon, she readjusts her body and loses herself in her writing. Off comes the hat, then the scarf, and then the jacket. A white-ruffled little-girl shirt is underneath. Her hair isn't spiked under the hat -- it's cute hat-head flat. She forgets and sits upright, writing fast, smiling at her own work.
At sharing time, I figure she'll go back to slumping. But no. Her hand waves in the air, and she stands to read her poem. Gone is "tough girl;" she reads in a strong, clear voice, a delightful, funny, poem about puppy dogs and kittens.
When she's finished, there's silence. Applause erupts; kids know good writing when they hear it.
Welcome to the extracurricular world of writing for kids. Nerds, jocks, cheerleaders, misfits, and everyone in between shows up. These workshops are often the only place creative writing happens for students enrolled in public middle schools today, unless kids do it on their own.
A few years ago, I presented a talk to teachers for my book, "The ABCs of Writing for Children." I assumed they preferred to hear ideas on how kids could write in their classrooms, rather than how teachers could get their own children's books published.
I was wrong. "We don't do creative writing with students," they said. "It's not in the standards."
Why should we care? If we don't, students won't learn how to communicate effectively. Taking time to write stories, poems and personal narratives help them discover feelings, rouse imagination, process thoughts, understand themselves, relate to others, and really think in depth. Without these skills, we'll be simply producing young adults who communicate on a keyboard with tweets and emoticons.
What happens when youth don't experience creative expression such as writing? Culture collapses. You've seen it in the news; kids turn to drugs and violence for answers, instead of turning inward. If violence is already present in their lives, writing is healing therapy; it becomes a natural high and an escape from the world they know. Rather than turning to crime, they'll realize hope in a world of words, stories, poetry,and essays.
The California Writers Club has been doing something about it since 1995. We offer a Young Writers Program which includes an annual contest for Contra Costa middle school students and writing workshops, in local libraries and -- thanks to a grant from the Leroe Foundation -- we've been able to place short story writers and poets in classrooms.
Also, encourage any middle school student you know to join our program. (http://cwcmtdiablowriters.wordpress.com/young-writers-contest/) Are you a parent? Turn off the electronics for an hour and read, or tell a story, or make a journal. If you are a teacher, buck the system. Make time for creative breaks. And there must be a change in state and federal school curricula.
Visit former teacher and current author Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff, a Walnut Creek resident, at www.lizbooks.com