Gibsonburg, Ohio -- "Shangri-La is a place where everyon has time to watch the sunset." This is what "Utopia" means to 13-year-old Ellen.
My eighth-graders and I are reading "Lost Horizon," James Hilton's 1930s book about the mythical sanctuary, Shangri-La. They are infatuated with the lifestyle of the residents of the Valley of Blue Moon, high in the mountains of Tibet.
"We have all dreamed of Shangri-La, a perfect place. It lives in our mind's eye. Describe yours." This was last Thursday's writing assignment and the results were heartwarming and heartbreaking.
"When I live in my Shangri-La my brother will go live with my Dad because he drives me nuts when he slurps and burps."
"A perfect place to live will always have cocoa with marshmallows and pizza without anchovies while watching videos." Andy's got some participles dangling but we get his drift.
"Shangri-La is a house with just the right amount of people. One BTC mom, dad, brother, sister and dog. If I could have a cat too I would be happy but cats make my stupid sister sneeze. Maybe we could have a cat instead of my sister."
"When I go to live in my perfect place I will probably be dead."
"I want to live in Shangri-La so my mom can stop working so hard just to keep a roof over our heads. She has really fought for our home and to keep my brother and sister and me together. She is an inspiration to me and the kind of person who would live there."
"Utopia would be a grate [sic] place to live but I don't like the name. I would change it to something cool like 'Bauersburg' named after me. When I live there I won't have to go to school but I will know more than my teachers. I will use telepathy (that mind stuff) to send my girlfriend notes and not get caught."
Fifteen eighth-graders and I pull our carpet squares into a tighter circle and sit cross-legged on the floor. The magic of Hilton's perfect place has captured another generation -- a generation desperately in need of a bit of heaven on earth.
Cindy read from her paper. "My perfect place is where no babies get killed because nobody wants them. My mom says I shouldn't worry about that but I think about it a lot."
"I like Shangri-La because practically nobody dies there. If they do what the lama tells them they can live hundreds of years. I wish I had knew this place before my grandpa died." Patty frequently writes about missing her grandpa who " . . . read to me every night even when he was too tired." We can fix the grammar. I wish we could get her grandpa back.
"Boy, do I want to live in that place because then nobody could yell at me. My mom and my sisters are always whining and yelling and they drive me nuts and as soon as I get a job I'm moving far away and I'm not going to get a wife and I'm not going to have any girl children either." Brian has had it with women.
"I want to live in Shangri-La because I know the water in the streams will run clear, the flowers will smell good and all the ladies will be beautiful." Brooke is our gentle poet who has always lived in a Shangri-La of her own creation. "All of the animals can roam free and come into my house."
This drew fire from the listening audience.
"Brooke, you can't have deer in the house because they'll poop on the floor and your mother will kill you." Unruffled, she responded, "No, I can just get bigger kitty litter boxes and change them every day."
Jim has a hard time concentrating, and writing is tough for him, but he has outdone himself today. "I think Shangri-La means a place where everybody can be happy. Someday I'm going to be happy forever."
Elizabeth Schuett, a teacher and writer in Gibsonburg, Ohio, is a frequent contributor to the Cox News Service.