“This will be both the easiest and the hardest writing assignment of the year.”

“I’m confused.”

OMG…If there’s a motto for this year’s crew, that’s it.
When last we met, my kids and I were reading Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B,” and I was assigning them the same task that introduces the poem.

“OK. Let’s look again at the assignment in the poem.”

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

“What does he mean by the word ‘true’? I mean obviously he means not to lie or make up stuff, but what does he really mean?”

Eventually we get around to the idea of something truly personal and important.

“I want something only YOU could have written. I want to be able to read that paper and go…’That’s Marcia!’ without even looking at the name. Or go…’whoa THAT’S Marcia? I had no idea.'”

They start moving their limbs randomly and their facial muscles don’t quite know what to do either.

“Bbbbbbut… Do we write about what we like? Or how we ride the bus home from school?”

“Does what you like make you what you are? Does your bus ride take you from one completely different world to another? I doubt that. It’s probably just a ride with a slightly different set of ‘geniuses’ to a world that’s just more comfy than here. With better food… and cable.”

“We have a satellite dish.”
“We don’t have a tv.”
“My mom can’t cook.”

“Would you just stop?”


“Anyway. No. I would say the bus ride won’t work for most of you.”

“What do we write about?”

“You want me to read it again? I don’t even want you to start writing until later in the week (this is Monday). I want you to be thinking about this all the time. I want you to walk around going…uh…wait…what…uh all week long until it comes to you.”

“Bbbbbbut…” They’re desperately searching for a question I will answer concretely, and somehow give them direction.

“Does it hafta be a poem?”

“Does it say, ‘Go home and write a POEM tonight’?”

“Phew.” The relief, as Mark Twain says, was palpable.

“How long does it have to be?”

“Do you want me to read it again?”

“So…a page?” They think they see a loophole.

“I believe that’s what it says.” (rubbing the bridge of the nose)

“So how many words?” They’re such good little word counters these days. And they begin everything they say with so. Or OK. Or both.

“One of my favorite ones was about 80-something words. It was a poem. Another one of my faves was close to 1200. It wasn’t. And yes, she crammed them all on one page.”


“And she did it old school…on a typewriter. Her family still had one in a closet, and she wanted to try it. She also ended up adding a lot of handwritten additions and arrows and suchlike. I think she began by telling me how unfair the assignment was, and ended with grudgingly admitting it was a good experience. She also walked five miles to school each day, barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways.”

“Nuh uh.”

“Langston Hughes only had a day. You have until Friday.”


“All I’m really looking for is sincerity. I should be able to tell that you took this assignment seriously. That’s really what it’s all about. There ain’t no rubric for this one. As the Supreme Court justice once said back in the day, when they had a case about obscenity, “I may not be able to define pornography, but I know it when I see it.”


“Just stop.”

Here’s that short one from a long while back. Every year I have an internal debate about whether to show them examples or not. This year I haven’t shared any. This bunch is too much monkey-see-monkey-do. I’d get 50 Shadow Girls outta these shmarties, and 50 male equivalents.

Shadow Girl

To anybody out there:
You’ve seen her in the hallway.
Or curled up in the back of a classroom.
Hunched over a table at lunchtime.
You’ve passed by her,
Walking fast,
staring straight ahead.

Do you know Me?
No, you don’t know me.
You know the Shadow Girl.

You’ve talked to her in Social Studies.
And cheated off her Math test.
Did you know, that everything she does,
is a cry for help?
When you see her face,
can you tell that she’s been betrayed?
Do you know Her?
Yes, you know Her.
You know the girl who only wants to be
You’ve seen the white “surrender” flag
waving in her eyes.
But she’s not alone.
And you never see past her,
you’ll never really see Me,
unless you read this page.