I'VE never been truly comfortable around teen-agers, even when I was one. They're so . . . young! I haven't been a teen since sometime slightly before little Billy Jeff Clinton went to Washington, shook President Kennedy's hand and said, "By the grace of God, I'll be on the other side of that handshake in about 30 years."
took a former nun, Sally McNelis, English Department chairman at Eastern Technical High School in Essex, to convince me of the wisdom of her ways, and the error of my discomfort.
Former Sister Sally got a grant from the Baltimore County school system's Office of Applied and Technical Science for the first-ever "student summer writing workshop" at Eastern, which used to be wrongly seen as just another vocational school offering car care, carpentry and cosmetology.
I would be a "visiting professional," a "real writer," Sally told me. I would show the kids that writing is not always perfect the first time, that editing is life, that revision is good.
She was so persuasive that I arranged some vacation days to mesh with the workshop. Later, Sally, the workshop coordinator, sent some "suggestions."
I needed them.
"Sit on the same side of the table as the writer," Suggestion No. 1 said. "This gives the clear impression that you are a coach, not a grader." I never forgot that tip, even though the table was round.
Twenty-three students, who are in grades nine through 12 this September, enrolled in the workshop. They gave up three weeks of vacation, re-arranged and juggled summer jobs, postponed family events. They did it for no credit, no financial compensation. They did it because they enjoy writing or wanted to learn more or as one young Hemingway said, "to help me develop my characters better."
Pretty impressive, coming from the MTV generation, which allegedly has given up both reading and writing in return for blurred vision and ringing ears.
The sessions were held in a vast computer lab in the school library with no shortage of terminals. I sensed things might be a little different when each morning the two instructors, Kay Wilson and Nancy Null, and the coordinator had to pry the students off the computers for some class time. Based on the Maryland Writing Project model, the workshop provided much free time for writing and sharing it with classmates (peer response) and instructors. There were no restrictions on topic or form or pace.
My "job" in this process -- besides making sure I sat on the right side of the table -- was to spend two days during the last week providing feedback to the kids who wanted it. It was voluntary. In educational parlance, I was an elective.
Six students elected me.
Some came shyly, others marched boldly forward. They all gave me a copy of their work and read the stories or poems aloud. They talked about what the pieces were about, where their ideas came from, what they were trying to say, their purposes, their audiences.
Sandra Dee Harsh, a 10th grader, described a trip to Cape Hatteras, N.C., and a "majestic salt-shaker" lighthouse she saw.
Jaime Simmons, an 11th grader and dedicated stock car racing fan, wrote a poem in which she imagines the last minutes in the life of driver Davey Allison, who was killed when the helicopter he was piloting hit a fence and crashed in Alabama: "My hands are the life line/Over diamonds links of gray and silver."
Melinda Roberts, a 10th grader, did two bright and lively poems: "My Dark Future," about an M&M; candy waiting to be eaten and "Pigments in the Flame," about a childhood joy of melting crayons in candle flames.
"White Box," a prose poem by senior Julie Johnston, explored what she thought "the instant after death or maybe insanity" might be like. She was fascinated with color imagery.
"I love the thesaurus," she said. "Do you know how many words there are for red?"
Helena Adams, a 10th grader, was another poet. Her "Angels Up Above" alluded to a family saying that thunderstorms are angels dancing. "The Animal," with "sharp pointed teeth" and a "growling hum," became an electric fan. "I just thought of it because of all the hot weather this summer," she said.
Sophomore Desiree Randall tested me the first day with a short poem, "A Messenger," about a rainbow. "Seven colors leading to a treasure/Proving people can work together too."
She then casually mentioned she was working on "something else." I must have passed the test, because she brought "something else" back on Day 2. It turned out to be a seven-page free verse poem in five cantos.
At the end of the workshop, the teachers and coordinator held a "publication party" for the students. Parents attended; Principal Robert J. Kemmery came. The writers read final versions of their work. They bonded. I wish I could have been there.
"They left insisting on forming a young writers group this year," Sally McNelis said. "I'm absolutely thrilled with what they accomplished."
I've thought about those six young writers since then and find myself admiring them and their 17 workshop compatriots. I've wondered if at the same age I could have written about such topics as death, M&Ms;, insanity, rainbows and angels dancing in the sky.
"What I did on my summer vacation" was my speed. I think it still is.
Wayne Hardin is a reporter for The Sun and Evening Sun.