Monday, July 31, 2017

Book Review: It's Mine and I'll Write It That Way

Title: It's Mine and I'll Write It That Way 

Authors: Dick Friedrich and David Kuester

Date: 1972

Publisher: Random House

ISBN: 0-394-31155-8

Length: 238 pages

Illustrations: some one-color graphics

Quote: “It's the afternoon of the day before my first class...This will be a day-to-day account of what goes on in my class.”

This is the story, fictionalized enough to preserve people's privacy, of two young men teaching a “communication” class for adult nontraditional students in a city (St. Louis).

That's interesting for me, for obvious reasons. How was their class in 1972 like and different from mine in 2002? The answer is—very different. In 2002 nobody was paying for people returning to high school between the ages of 18 and 55 to take a creative writing class. Education had to be practical, in the sense of immediately profitable. The students had to be trained for specific jobs. Most of those jobs involved no writing whatsoever, so the English teacher's job was strictly to get them through the grammar and vocabulary part of the G.E.D. test. But in 1972 Friedrich and Kuester could afford to noodle around with writing assignments and discussions and memoirs and even poems. Oh (Asimov, anyone?), the fun they had...

Few samples of students' work are included in this book. The ones that are reprinted are so topical it hurts. There's the young female who feels compelled to tell a room full of snickering male students that writing is “an act of love” and something to do with “opening yourself.” There's the Black man whose self-introduction is “a poem...a kind of chant” explaining his name, “He got no name-- / He one of Crenshaw's slaves-- / Crenshaw,” and whose name may stick in readers' minds as he continues to submit the most quotable papers. There are writings about sex, marijuana, dodging the draft, leaving the United States, and “telling it like it is.”

Along the way, readers get some rather free-form thoughts about writing, not as well polished and tightened up as they might have been, and several writing prompts they might use for blogs or writing practice—or even full-length poems, stories, or articles. The teachers encourage a student to expand one very short story about losing a pet dog into a longer memoir about her life before, with, and after that dog. The needed follow-up assignment, where the student condenses the information in the long version back down to the length of the original short version of the story, does not appear in this book.

The class is not exactly a howling success; the teachers aren't asked to teach next term's class. Their teaching method may be just a bit too innovative, not only indulging Crenshaw when the cast of characters in a play he's sketching begins with “The President, whose name is Fascism,” but even taking the class out for a walk. When the school librarian recognizes Kuester as a teacher but asks for his ID card so he can check out a book properly, he goes into a rant about how un-American it is to have to carry an ID card and gleefully shares the story of how he marched out proudly carrying the unauthorized library book. Baby-boomers were like that, once, before we started listening to the insurance agents.

It's interesting to consider, perhaps as a topic for writing practice, what we've learned and what we've lost. Librarians can very easily become petty tyrants who need to be reminded that their little policies are at best the rules of a game; people who “liberate” library books can very easily become thieves who destroy a valuable resource for their community. Time proved that both those who hoped and those who feared that acts of rebellion like taking a walk during class time were going to lead to any kind of revolution were just plain wrong...but it does seem to me that when people are free to recognize co-workers and not demand ID cards, for one thing everybody is safer (because card-counters get bored and can be deceived by fake cards), and for another thing everybody has more fun.

What can we learn from the tale of two teachers whose intentions were probably good, who probably did succeed in making students look forward to English class, but who were not rehired as teachers anyway? In 1972 It's Mine was one of those books that polarized people on either side of the generation gap. (It didn't become a bestseller because it asked young rebels to think, practice, and communicate rather than conform, drop out, buy things, or blow things up.) For those who wanted more freedom and self-expression in what was, at the time, a monolithic school system based on the assembly line model, Friedrich and Kuester might have been seen as heroes. The Defying of the Librarian was petty, perhaps even indirectly sexist (although girls defied librarians too), and a very bad example for the students. On the other hand, silent walking—which may be best done in a group, to minimize distractions from all the non-writers one meets—is a legitimate part of writing practice; not only looking out the window but even walking out the door can indeed help students waste less paper while writing better essays.

I suspect that's sort of an example of the way most people my age remember the 1970s, Nephews. We were young, we were merry, we were very very wise, we were trying to hammer out a reasonable philosophy of life for our sleek young selves. Some of what we were doing, we should never have stopped doing (if we have stopped). Some of what we were doing, certainly more of what we were debating about doing, was more like “stealing” library books, or the way poor old Bill Cosby has confessed to having been a serious contender for the title of World's Most Disappointing Date—some things were bad choices, and we should have known they were bad choices, even if we were seventeen...or even only seven. It's Mine contains a surprisingly wide and complete sample of those things for present-day consideration.

John Holt, who did a lot to promote books about education that were rebellious in a liberating, insightful way, did not promote It's Mine. It's unlikely that he'd overlooked it. Whether he considered it trivial, considered it irrelevant to his focus on teaching children, or simply considered other innovative teachers' books better, I'm not sure.

So, it's not Natalie Goldberg's writing-practice book, nor Julia Cameron's, nor John Gardner's, and it's definitely not a manual for How to Be a Good Adult Education English Teacher—though it's instructive to consider what Friedrich and Kuester did right, as teachers, and did wrong. What It's Mine is, is a nostalgia trip with writing prompts. I enjoyed it, and so, as a blog reader, will you. It's instructive, though, that although these guys were young enough and talented enough that you might expect to find other things they've written online, you'd be disappointed--if they are still writing, they're using different names.

And it's a collector's item...and although it's not even a Fair Trade Book, buying it online will require you to support this web site with (at the time of writing) $20 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment. The good news is that you can fit at least three more books into the package for one $5 shipping charge, so please browse and order other books to go with this addition to Cameron's, Gardner's, and Goldberg's classic writing-prompts books, mention should be made of Anne Lamott's, and anyone who uses Writing Down the Bones should check out the follow-up books on Goldberg's Amazon page.