This, my friends, is a story without a whole lot of suspense, I’m afraid. Once upon a time, there was a teenage boy who discovered his passion for writing thanks to the encouragement of three high school mentors¹. And then, almost 20 years later (a.k.a. this past Thursday), said boy (now a man) walked back onto the campus of said high school and did his best to help 29 seventh and eighth graders discover if they might have a passion for it, too. A good time was had by all.
So…yeah, the class went well. In fact, if first and second-hand reports are to be believed, the kids absolutely loved it². And me? Well, I had a blast. Which doesn’t make for much of a story, of course³. But there were a few fun anecdotes and details that I thought were worth sharing…
In the syllabus I’d laid out, I’d planned on having the kids introduce themselves by sharing their favorite movie (and then using those movie titles for a game). But instead, I decided to streamline things and have them introduce themselves by telling the class the story of their favorite movie — until someone could guess the title. This worked quite well, and it also let me learn a little bit about their collective taste.
Many favorites were not surprises (i.e. Finding Nemo, Shrek, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, etc.) A few were, none more so than Madea’s Witness Protection⁴. The funniest/saddest moment came when one girl prefaced her choice by saying it was “an old movie”, and then proceeded to describe the plot of 2001’s Ocean’s 11. Great taste, but damn did I feel old. Another girl’s “old movie” actually lived up to its billing: West Side Story.
I think the biggest surprise, however, was the movies they didn’t pick. Nary a one of them named a comic book movie (no Avengers, No X-Men, No Deadpools, No Dark Knights) or a Star Wars film. Who’d a thunk it?
From there, we segued into the definition of a story. And to pound this point home, I showed them the epic opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The verdict: it may be 30+ years since that movie came out, but that shit still holds up. They were all captivated.
I doubled-down on the movie clips by showing them the opening sequence from Up (to illustrate the importance of making the audience care about your characters). Up, of course, they recognized before I even hit play on the clip, and it was met with a chorus of groans that would’ve made you think we were about to do geometry proofs.
“But this is like the saddest thing ever!” they said in almost collective unison. But, of course, that was the point. And they were every bit as responsive to the clip once I pressed play.
Next up was the Vernon Hardapple game, where I gave each group (4-5 kids) a picture and asked them to tell me the story of what was going on in it. This was the picture:
What they didn’t know (at least up front), was that they all had the same picture. So, it was fun to see the many versions of the story that they came up with. In retrospect, having a photo with a gun involved painted them into a bit of an imaginative corner, and the result was some dark fucking stories. There was enough death, secret agenting, and tragedy to make for a pretty good art house spy film.
The hilarious part was that the only two groups who told a story with a happy/redemptive ending were made up of all girls. But I have to say that the redemptive turn at the end of their stories was far more compelling for at least this audience member.
I spent the break doing what any good teacher would do: investigating their snack choices. For those scoring at home, there was a preponderance of “bars” and a bit of fresh fruit here or there. Two other important things I learned: they were (genuinely) having a great time, and the boy who smuggled an Area 69 joke into his improv story, and was decked out in all Warriors gear, did not want the team to sign Kevin Durant⁵.
In what was undoubtedly the most successful/fun game of the day, the kids really brought it during our modified version of The Tonight Show staple, “True Confessions.” My favorite “truth or lie” interrogation centered on an Alex P. Keaton look-a-like, who was wearing an argyle sweater (on a late June day no less), and told the story of meeting former President Jimmy Carter at a book signing (no shocker: the kid was telling the truth).
The game’s big winner was Nicole, however, who told the story of having her finger broken at a community pool, when someone dropped a large piece of concrete on it. 95% of the class thought she was telling the truth (myself included), but that little rascal: she was lying through her braces-laden teeth. I’ll tell you one thing right now: I wouldn’t want to be that girl’s parents over the next 5-6 years, because she’s going to get away with murder.
Due to time constraints (and me having a decent feel of the room by that point), we ditched The Moth-esque storytelling exercise I’d had planned. Instead, we finished off the day with some “Build a Story” improv’ing. We started with longer intervals between storytellers, and then brought things to a crescendo by having them piece a story together one word at a time. I’d assumed that the one-word-at-a-time version would be more difficult, but it actually proved much easier for them, as the pressure of only having to come up with one word (rather than multiple sentences) was far more manageable.
Bottom line: they had fun and actually learned something⁶. For me, it was a great opportunity to engage with the creative process in a new and collaborative way. And while I think I’d likely prefer (moving forward) to work with kids a little older, I’ll definitely be back next year to do it again…
…assuming they’ll have me, of course.