Meta: In Which I Write About Writing to Make Sense of Things, In Order to Make Sense of Things (Or, Why Journaling is Crucial)

Over the past week or so, I’ve grown a little bit bored with my usual podcast lineup. Maybe bored isn’t the right word. It just felt a little stale, and while I was still enjoying the shows I listen to every week, I wanted some new content too. While listening to an episode of Literary Disco, I heard one of the hosts, Rider Strong (yep, that Rider Strong), mention some work that he did with another podcast, Mortified. From his description, I could tell that it was very similar to another show I’ve recently started loving called Grownups Read Things They Wrote As Kids (pretty self-explanatory).

The premise for both of these shows is simple: at various clubs where the events are hosted, adults get up on stage and read things that they wrote when they were kids. It ranges from really bad poetry and weird stories to middle school diary entries, notes passed in high school to AOL conversations printed years ago, and everything in between. The results are typically really humorous (and often very poignant at times). Many of the participants are also roughly my age, so a lot of the references and particular habits resonate with me (printing “important” AOL conversations in the late 90s so that you could read them again later to make sense of them? Guilty. Also my mom just recently threw away boxes of notes that I had from junior high).

I hope I don’t ruin any of my mystery and intrigue here, but … spoiler alert: I love to write. I’ve always counted reading and writing among the items at the top of my list of favorite things to do, ever since childhood. I can remember specific writing assignments from 1st grade and how excited I was to complete them. My Gram bought me a blank journal from the Dollar Store when I was in 2nd or early 3rd grade — just like the ones she wrote in that I would find next to the chair at her house and read when she wasn’t looking. She told me to fill it up with the story of my life. I took it a bit too literally at first, perhaps, and started writing the incredibly mundane details of my life in the third person, just like the Sweet Valley books that I loved so much. I don’t remember how, but I quickly learned that’s not the way you do it (although, really, you can write your journals however you damn well please, so don’t ever think there’s a wrong technique). I remember drawing lines through those first few sentences before starting over. But soon the monotony of an 8 year old’s life just wasn’t that much fun to write about. And besides, my [younger] sister had taken to reading it. I asked for a diary with a lock for Christmas.

(I got one, and the first thing I noticed was that it had a key, but no lock. I still believed in Santa Claus at that point, and I got really mad at him on Christmas morning. With tears in my eyes, I threw the diary onto a pile and declared it worthless, being the ungrateful little asshole that I was. I know now how much that must have hurt my mom’s feelings, but she still calmly apologized on Santa’s behalf and said that she bet the elves at JCPenney’s — where she worked — would help to fix it before January 1st, because my mom is a super nice lady.)

I can remember specific entries from that diary. I remember that one of the first things I wrote about was my biggest secret that I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone yet — my mom was having a baby. But then I noted that I, of course, told my best friend, even though she has a big mouth and would probably tell the whole school (like they would care, I guess?). I also wrote about listening to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana on the radio and how I liked it because it didn’t sound like anything else. I was pretty clearly the coolest 9 year old you didn’t know in January 1992. Or in August 1992, when I was so sad that the baby was a boy because if it had been a girl, my sister and the baby would have roomed together, and I could have had my own room (which I always had the ability to have before then, but never wanted to until it wasn’t an option).

It was a pretty natural progression from there. 3rd & 4th grade diary slowly moved into the journal that I kept from Christmas Eve 1994 until February 1997 (6th grade and half of junior high). I wrote a “book” (it was really a long short story) about time-traveling hippy twins when I was in 6th grade. I filled several journals throughout high school and college, and then in college, I shifted gears and started writing more on LiveJournal. I kept that until my 25th birthday, and only recently learned that it had been deleted because I never confirmed the email sent to me to keep it during their system updates. It was sent to my AOL email address, defunct since 2004. I lost years of my memories, and some of my favorite ones, too. I even tried the Wayback Machine. No such luck. I’ve been seriously considering starting to use Day One now.

After listening to Mortified, I decided to read my 1994-1997 journal the other night. I was in search of the kinds of things that would make me laugh at myself in the same way that the podcast is really funny. And I did. I found random trains of thought that frequently derailed or skipped from track to track with absolutely no transitions. I found that, in the absence of any boys liking me in junior high when many of my friends were getting boyfriends, I just started keeping a running record of all the guys my friend was “dating.” I wrote a lot about my love for Jonathan Taylor Thomas, especially in 6th and early 7th grade, and how I was really sure that I just, like, got him, you know? I laughed when I read that some other girl told me she really liked him too, but I knew I liked him more because she just thought he was cute and knew that he was also a really good person. I compared the scraggly, scrawny, smelly boys I met in 7th grade to Jordan Catalano. I wanted to be Angela Chase. I was a good girl with Rayanne-ish friends on the fringes. I wrote about the drama of every school dance, one of which included a girl in my 7th grade class in the bathroom declaring that she’d just taken a whole bottle of Tylenol.

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photo credit: via photopin (license)

But about halfway through 7th grade, the journal took a turn that I didn’t remember at all. All of a sudden, I started writing about how ugly I was. I started writing about how the boys I liked would never like me like they liked my friends because I was ugly and fat. My skin was oily. I had too many zits. That in itself made me stop because I felt so sad for that girl. I just wanted to hug 13 year old me and say that I’m in the future and it will be okay and none of this stuff matters at all. I kept reading then about the boys who really did call me fat and ugly. About notes that I wrote to my best friend being passed around an entire bus. What began as a perky and obnoxious 12 year old slowly dissolved into someone who was listless and moody and documenting the black clothing that she had obtained and declaring that happiness wasn’t “even a real thing anyway.”

Was it the Nirvana from 3rd grade? Kidding. But it’s also important to note that it’s really difficult to pinpoint the cause of this mood. The first logical possibility is because I was 13. The second is because it was the mid-90s, before bubblegum pop music made a resurgence, and we all listened to grunge and alternative (I still listen to this music, it’s the only thing from that time for which I feel nostalgic), and that was just the general, dark mood. The third is because 9 years later, I would be legitimately diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder, and possibly this is when it began to manifest itself.

But during all of that, my outlet was always reading, writing, and music. It still is. I write when I need to make sense of things. That’s been a common theme on this blog for a while, but it’s been a constant for me for at least the last 23 years. It was a safe outlet.

But whereas the mood when I was a teenager was kind of dark, we were living in a different time. In 8th grade, a 9th grader committed suicide and it was the worst thing we’d ever dealt with at school — the grief counselors, the crying students, the teachers wanting to talk about how we were feeling. But the next day, life went on. It would be two more years before Columbine happened — my 10th grade year — and they started watching everyone a little more closely. Kids weren’t just writing anymore to vent their feelings. They vented them in more violent ways.

When I graduated from college, I went to teach 9th grade English in Virginia. During my second year, the Virginia Tech massacre happened. At the start of each year, we’d have a faculty meeting in which we were briefed on gang symbols and colors to look for. We were shown how many guns someone could hide on his person before it was noticeable (I think there were 19). One of my students (one with known and documented problems) was once discovered with bullets in his backpack and I was told that it was “probably nothing.” I asked what would happen when he brought a gun, and was told that I was over-reacting and I was safe. I taught there for 3 years, and then I left. After 4 total years, I left the teaching profession altogether and ultimately became an editor — better suited to reader-and-writer me.

Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 1.51.34 PMLast night, a friend from my Virginia teaching days texted me to ask if I’d heard the latest news. I’ve kept in touch with my VA friends, and still have friends teaching at RHS. She told me that two students had been arrested and detained, as well as charged with plotting to murder students and staff at the school. They were planning to call in a bomb threat, and when people came outside, they would start shooting them. After investigating the report (brave students saw social media posts about it and said something), the police found cause for a legitimate threat. I opened my computer and discovered that it was becoming a trending topic for me on Facebook. This morning, as other mid-sized outlets around the country picked up the story, national news outlets were reporting on the foiled school massacre plans, as well.

This has me pretty shaken up. I keep thinking about what could have happened to my friends and the students — families, no doubt, of those I taught. I keep thinking of my classroom at the front of the building and how we were always among the first people out during fire drills, my eyes going immediately to my old windows as news cameras pan the front of the building.

I keep wondering when someone is going to make it a priority to fix our schools. Not just everything with the tests, but everything, including how we deal with problematic students that will impact the kinds of people they grow up to be, and therefore the kinds of people their children will be. Because a lot of these problems have at least some base at home. I can say with certainty that not all problem kids are the parents’ fault, but there’s usually something there sparking it. None of this is, of course, politically fashionable, so we just talk about it when there are shootings in movie theaters and elementary schools and community colleges, and then it’s apparently never the time and we don’t discuss how we can realistically keep our schools and their children and teachers and staffers safe. Part of the reason I left teaching is because I couldn’t deal with constantly telling students things that I didn’t believe, including “your test scores are totally relevant and all of this busy work is important to your future!” and “you’re completely safe here.” I have the greatest respect for my friends and everyone else who teaches in public schools, and at the same time, I’m not sure that, if I had kids, I would want to send them to public school. Not right now. Not until someone really fixes it.

Maybe I’m thinking about it too much and maybe kids don’t really have more issues than they did when I was younger. But I really don’t know. I used to worry about going to school and being rejected by my peers and called fat and ugly, and that became an overarching theme of my teenage writings. Now kids have to worry about going to school and being shot.

Writing is therapeutic. The things we write are often telling. Maybe, instead of drilling the mechanics of a bubble sheet into kids’ heads, we need to at least consider spending time giving them more opportunities to positively and safely express their troubles long before they turn violent. Emotional intelligence is just as important as IQ and test scores.

TL;DR: Writing is effective and cheaper than therapy.

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