by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Where does the violet tint end and the orange tint begin? Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the first blending enter into the other. So with sanity and insanity."... ....Herman Melville.
Commentary of the Day - December 5, 2007: What You Think You Know. Guest commentary by Susanne Shaphren.My mother told the story so often that I often make the mistake of thinking I remember what happened.
"I learn so much about the students' home lives by watching them play," the teacher told my mother at the exact moment I ever so elegantly raised my plastic glass and asked my pint-sized companion if he wanted more champagne.
What that teacher thought she'd learned couldn't have been farther from the truth. There wasn't a drop of champagne in our house. Except for the plastic bottle of alcohol kept in the bathroom to deal with first aid emergencies, the only alcohol in our house was the bottle of Christmas present booze my mother dribbled into stew. That's not the whole truth. There was probably part of a six pack of beer in the refrigerator. If I remember right, my parents split a bottle "often" (i.e. once a year!)
I might have been mimicking what I saw on those TV matinee movies I watched too often. Maybe it was just the first flutter of a budding writer's imagination rearing its ugly head.
Luckily, I didn't know about the teacher's harmless mistake until many years later. I idolized her and was so eager to please that I sat up ever so straight in my tiny chair and pretended my mother hadn't already taught me colors, numbers, and the alphabet. I obediently learned to raise my hand when I had to go potty and mastered the art of forming a straight line with my classmates. At the end of the year, I was eager for summer to fly by so I could come back and learn more.
I can't help thinking other students won't be nearly as lucky as I was. What teachers and professors think they know about students' lives and deepest thoughts based solely upon what they see in the classroom or by reading their assignments could prove to be anything but harmless.
In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, it's a safe bet many teachers and professors evaluate students' essays and stories a bit differently than they have in prior years. It's understandable that some are reading assignments with one eye on the fundamentals of writing and the other on clues to potential real-life violence.
This natural knee-jerk reaction to what happened probably won't prevent future tragedies. It's easy to spot indicators of tragedy when you've got the luxury of 20-20 hindsight, but the truth is what you think you know by reading a student's work could very well be as "accurate" as my kindergarten teacher's Champagne observation.
Tucked in a big box of family photos, there's a faded piece of lined paper with no holes, the kind of paper we used in elementary school. There's no name on the top to identify the author of the not so timeless prose.
"... accidentally ran over the man 57 times." Hmm. This child should be immediately referred to the school psychologist for a thorough evaluation. There's obviously a serious potential for mass murder in his or her future. Right? Probably not. The "suspects" grew up to be an attorney and a free-lance writer, neither of whom have killed a living soul.
Students are taught to write what they know, but many creative individuals successfully break that rule and manage to write pure fiction that "rings" true.
I wouldn't read Stephen King's work alone in the middle of a thunderstorm, but I'd feel perfectly safe spending time with him. Just because he writes horror doesn't mean he's capable of committing horrific acts.
When my short story, "Cup of Courage," was published in an anthology intended to dispel common myths about alcoholism, a talk show host insisted he could read between the lines and determine the author was an alcoholic and a nymphomaniac. Neither assumption was accurate.
Librarians faced an ethical dilemma after 911. Should they agree to invade patrons' privacy by keeping track of and sharing lists of who checked out books on terrorism related subjects or defy the government by deleting computer records?
I'm sure I wasn't the only freelance writer who fully expected to have a contingent of Federal agents knock down my door to investigate why I'd checked out so many books on forensics, poisons, weapons of less than mass destruction, etc.
My first nationally published fiction, a Weight Watchers Magazine Fiction Award story, 'The Visit," included the brutal murder of an infant. Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine and a variety of other magazines paid me to continue my killing spree.
Over the years, my publication credits broadened to include articles and short stories where nobody died, but there were also dark tales where characters were dispatched in a variety of truly horrifying circumstances.
Does that mean I present a clear and present (or future) danger to society? No!
While I must confess that more than a few people who "done me wrong" (please forgive that grammar homicide!) may have morphed into short story murder victims, innocent bystanders and the aforementioned guilty parties are perfectly safe from any physical harm.
Using one mentally unstable student's dark writing and subsequent violent actions as the benchmark to evaluate all creative writing assignments would be a tragic mistake.
There's a more subtle danger in relying too heavily on past grades and prior instructors' comments when forming an opinion about new students. Researchers flip-flopped data so exceptionally bright students were identified as slow learners and children with learning disabilities were classified as top of their class material. At the end of the school year, students lived up to the false expectations!
What you think you know about a student based on observation, evaluation of written assignments, or prior academic records could have consequences every bit as tragic as the violence many educators hope to prevent by looking for early warning signs.
© 2007 Susanne Shaphren.
Susanne Shaphren is a freelance writer from Arizona who publishes both fiction and non-fiction. She is the daughter of a teacher.
The IP comments: While the IP generally agrees with Susanne that a teacher should not read too much into a student's fictional writing, he thinks it perfectly reasonable for a teacher to be cognizant of exceptionally aberrant behavior that might signal that a student has psychological problems that are sufficiently severe as to require professional intervention. More than once in 36 years of teaching has the IP gently encouraged students to take advantage of the counseling services available on campus.