Today, I will tell a story… It’s an absolutely true story, and it may or may not get at some of the source of my inspiration.
When I was in high school, a sophomore, we all had to take some standardized test that I guess was supposed to measure some facet of our intellectual capabilities and educational achievement. Full disclosure, I generally test well and had been taking these things in some form since about the first grade; so, as you may have guessed, I was pretty well tired of them by that point. Anyway, this test had a written component. We had to construct a typical 5-paragraph essay around the question for that year, which was something like: write an essay about the biggest problem facing Chicago teens today and how to solve it.
Now, I took one look at that question and my mind went immediately to all of the typical responses: gangs, drugs, teen pregnancy. The question seemed almost designed to lead us down those paths, or maybe it was supposed to get us to reflect on what it meant to be a teen at that time. Just as immediately, I rejected all of those ideas. It’s not that those problems are not important, because they very much are. (Gang violence has only escalated in the past decade in Chicago and has reached some very scary levels. Really, it is nuts how young people are hurting and doing violence to each other.) It was more that I could not figure out a way to write about them that would not be filled with cliched approaches and ideas. And I did not want to write about the expected topics in expected ways.
So, I went up to the teacher (yes, I remember her name; no, I won’t post it here) and asked if I could write about any problem I wanted. She told me yes, and I went back to my desk and proceeded to write a 5-paragraph essay about the most daunting challenge facing Chicago teens, the Lake Michigan monster, whom I imagined to be something like a cousin of Nessie’s but with a definitive violent streak. Unlike its placid and elusive Scottish kin, this monster, according to my essay anyway, was terrorizing the Chicago teens by routinely coming on land and devouring 100s of citizens at a time. BIG problem, right?
After using the introductory paragraph to, what do you know, introduce the problem and defend it as a legitimate and pressing concern, I used the next three paragraphs to offer different ways that we might address the problem. I don’t remember them all, but I do remember that I saved the best and most controversial solution for last.
In the penultimate paragraph of this masterful policy report, I suggested loading a boat full of people and dynamite, sending it out into Lake Michigan as bait, and–when the monster came for the people–blowing the ship and it to Kingdom Come. In my conclusion, I lamented the loss of life that my final suggestion would cost, but I rationalized that sometimes that sacrifice was necessary to prevent larger losses down the line.
The essay was complete. It was five neat paragraphs that introduced the problem, offered and explained three possible solutions, and had a reasonable conclusion. It demonstrated the skill set that they were trying to evaluate to the best of my abilities. Plus, it was the most fun I ever had writing one of those essays. Seriously, I was giggling to myself the whole time.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that my essay raised some eyebrows. In fact, the next year, my junior English teacher pulled me aside and asked me about it. Confused, I asked if I were going to have to retake the test. She told me that the essay was fine, but the content raised some eyebrows. People were apparently asking questions about whether or not I was “ok.” Thinking back, I recognize now how my final solution suggestion might have been a little concerning/problematic (or, alternatively, the product of a rich imagination). That day though, I was mostly just relieved that I did not have to retake the test.
Anyway, I thought I would share that story with you. Is it as revelatory as I imagined?
Today, in this author’s life: revisions, packing, and prepping. See you soon Chicago.