The house across the street from mine has boards instead of windows. They’re nice boards. For instance, before he abandoned the home, the previous tenant painted the board on the ground floor to look like a window with curtains. It’s a nice touch.
I am one of many counselors at Second Story’s Writing Camp, which serves third-graders aged 8, 9, and 10. Camp is held every Saturday over the course of six weeks at two different schools. I teach at Brookside. A few of my campers come by foot and by bicycle. They’re neighborhood kids, living close to the elementary school. I have a couple of these students in my group, and I tell them I come by foot too.
There is some skepticism. It’s not until I start naming streets that they believe I’m their neighbor.
The east side gets some bad press sometimes. A couple months back, one of my neighbors barricaded himself in a house and opened fire at police. There are lots of good things happening on the east side, too, but events like this tend to grip the imagination.
What does Writing Camp teach? That’s a good question.
When my third-graders get stuck in their writing, I talk to them. I ask, what happened next? Who was with you? What did it feel like? Sometimes they open up. Sometimes they shrug.
But if we get really stuck, I ask, what do you wish happened? What’s the craziest thing you can imagine?
Sometimes they shrug. Sometimes they win the Super Bowl.
I called the police on a neighbor once, because I didn’t recognize him. I never call police, not for anything, and then the one time I do it’s a mistake. If you want to know what makes a bad neighbor, here’s a fine definition: Someone who doesn’t know you, and who lacks the imagination to try.
So I was a bad neighbor.
Another neighbor once called me over to his gate once and held out a tomato. He told me to wait to eat it until it was purple. He’d grown it in his back yard, and in describing the flavor he used words my campers aren’t allowed to say. This was how he reached out to a stranger.
He was a good neighbor.
The school where I teach is the second school to host Second Story’s Writing Camp. The program is popular with students, and has shown steady growth. It’s likely to continue growing, and expand into other schools as well.
Programs like this don’t simply appear. They begin as a vision, as something that does not yet exist but can be brought into the world by sustained effort, love, and good humor.
That’s also how writing works.
My third-graders know their neighborhood’s reputation. They know what goes on. But it’s where they live. What can you do?
It’s funny what my students will believe, and what they won’t.
A boy in my group described winning a football game by single-handedly scoring 42 points, including the winning touchdown in the last eight seconds. No one raised an eyebrow.
A girl in my group described the red mud of Mississippi, and was immediately challenged with cries of There’s no such thing as red mud! I told them I’d seen it too, but I’m not sure if they believed me.
It’s easy to accept something near your experience, even when you shouldn’t. It’s harder to accept things that require imagination, even when they’re true.
How can we be better neighbors? How do we imagine our lives into being? These are big questions. These are not questions I ask my campers, even when they’re stuck.
At the end of each camp session they get a chance to tell their stories, true or made up. Almost every single camper wants a turn, every single week. Even the shy ones will ask a counselor to read their stories out loud.
At the end of each session, the stories are told. And for the few minutes each story is spoken, it exists among all of us. It is a real thing, and a thing we will remember, as real as football touchdowns and the red mud of Mississippi.
What does Writing Camp teach? That you can turn plywood into curtains. You can bring what you imagine into being. You can believe in the unbelievable.
These ideas tend to grip the imagination.
Learn more about Second Story’s mission by visiting their website or watching the video below.