FOR A DECADE, DIANE Scharper has asked the freshmen in her beginning writing course at Towson University to write their memoirs.
Write a page a week for 10 weeks about the best thing or the worst thing that's happened to you, she directs her students.
They do, pouring out heart and soul, rewriting and revising until their slices of autobiography are sharp and sure.
Scharper saved the best of the essays and, with the permission of the students, has published 38 of them in an anthology, "Songs of Myself: Episodes From the Edge of Adulthood" (Woodholme House, Baltimore).
But, wait. Memoirs at 18 and 19? What do post-baby boom college freshmen know about life?
Moreover, Scharper maintains, they're willing to spill it out more honestly than older people.
"They're at a stage in life when they're asking who they are, what they've been through and where they want to go," says Scharper. "Older people tend to put a shine on things when they're writing memoirs. Not these students."
The essays in "Songs of Myself" are about the pain and pleasure of adolescence, the joy of religion, the deaths of loved ones; about drugs, alcohol, divorce, abortion and summer in Ocean City.
Some are so personal that they're published anonymously.
Sherrie Triplin writes "A Part of Me," about giving up her baby for adoption. "I started to look at Tiffanie as if I were trying to memorize every inch of her body," Triplin writes of the moment of parting. "Tears rolled down my face."
A computer science major at Towson who took Scharper's class three years ago, Triplin says the memoir exercise was "therapeutic for me. I cried a lot while I was writing, but I was able to show my family and friends what I couldn't tell them at the time."
Scharper says: "Sherrie was telling me how beautiful the baby was and how she tried to freeze her in memory. I told her to freeze her in the memoir. Tell us everything about her. That's what the best writers do, and I think she succeeded."
Michelle Haynie, who will graduate from Salisbury State University next spring after transferring from Towson, writes about the mortification of protruding ears and her corrective surgery when she was 8.
"I don't know how old I was when I first realized I was ugly," her essay begins. The surgery "changed me forever. It gave me the self-confidence to make friends, meet boys and really be myself."
Brian M. Davis, now an accountant living in Reisterstown, writes about a jock's agony of defeat in Baltimore County high school vTC football: "It was my last game, and I felt like I could die. It would take some time before realizing it was not the last day of my life."
Andrianne Gamble of Baltimore took Scharper's class in 1990. She's now 26. Her essay, "The 'Write' Thing To Do," is about life and death, the love of a grandmother and the sometimes painful process of becoming a writer.
Gamble, an administrative assistant at a downtown bank, says she learned from Scharper the importance of rewriting.
"We used to call her the 'revision lady,' " Gamble says. But she adds quickly that eight years out of Scharper's course, she is an active writer of prose and poetry.
Curiously, the only topic off limits in Scharper's course, known formally as "Writing for a Liberal Education," is romantic love.
"I tell them to write about the best thing or the worst thing, but not about love," Scharper says. "Of course, a lot of the writers manage to chisel love in, and that's all right. But I don't want them to take it on as the major theme. It's too hard, even for accomplished writers."
Scharper, a writing teacher at Towson since the 1960s, says she came upon the idea of an anthology of student memoirs after years of searching for the "perfect reader."
"I kept changing readers every semester, which was expensive for the students because they like to sell their books after they complete a class. Then I thought, why not take a collection of the best memoirs and publish them? Maybe they'll be an inspiration to other teachers."
Some teachers call it "writing," Scharper says in the introduction to the anthology, "when students compose a paper, adding up somebody else's ideas in accord with the teacher's opinion. This exercise is less 'writing' than it is an exercise in logic, or rote memory, or even mental telepathy.
"Then we wonder how young people so filled with life can write dry, dead prose devoid of imagination and delight."
Booker recalls childhood as a lesson in struggling
Robert Booker, the new chief executive officer of the city school system, is the most reserved of the city's last six education chiefs. But yesterday, at a training session for city school administrators, Booker went "a little bit off the script," as he put it, to permit a rare peek at his childhood.
He grew up in a three-room house in Jacksonville, Texas, he said, with four siblings and his parents, no electricity or running water and heat from a wood stove. He read by the light of an oil lamp.
In spite of the family's "financial poverty," said Booker, 68, "we were rich in love," and his parents emphasized the value of education.
"I learned how to struggle," he said, "and the more I struggle, the more important education becomes to me."
Pub Date: 8/19/98