I had an interesting experience two days ago when I visited Winterhaven School here in Portland. The kids were great. I especially enjoyed my program for the 4th and 5th graders. We were able to look at writing in much more depth.
A number of children came up to me after the program. One girl—I could tell she was extremely bright—showed me a list of seven topics she had written down. She asked me, “Which one should I write about?”
I’ve run into this before—and not just from children. I knew how to answer that question. “I can’t tell you that. Write about what you care about and like best. Write about what means the most to you.”
She didn’t like that answer one bit. “No. You’re supposed to tell me.”
I wouldn’t. She got mad. That’s okay. I don’t play that game. What she’s really asking is: Give me the right answer. Tell me what to do and I’ll do it. My writing means nothing to me. All I want is a good grade. Isn’t that what education is all about—getting good grades so you can be successful?
She’s only in the fifth grade, but she’s already figured out what passes for our educational system. It’s all about test scores and right answers. Writing about a topic that I want to write about is dangerous. I might make a mistake and create something the teacher won’t like. Then I’ll get a bad grade and I won’t get into Harvard. Better not to take chances. Instead, I’ll get the teacher—or the professor or the boss—to tell me what to do. Then a good grade is guaranteed. The teacher can’t criticize my choice. Not when teacher’s the one who told me to do it.
It works. This child will go far. But she’s already paying a price. She’s squashing down her real self for the sake of a grade. Do that long enough and often enough and you’ll end up pushing yourself so far back you won’t be able to find your real self at all. Because by then you won’t even know whom your real self is.
So what should you write about? Why are you asking me? You already know the answer.