When Kira Harvey first saw Lauri Conner on the grounds of West Seattle High School this January, "I thought she was a kid," she recalls. When the West Seattle senior learned that Conner, a lithe, 30ish writer with the fire of poetry in her gut, was going to teach writing, Harvey's adolescent inner groan intoned: "Oh, great. Poetry. Fun."
Harvey, like Conner, is hard to pigeonhole. The most casual of dressers (she wears flip flops to class), she is described as a "wonder child" by a teacher for her open-faced enthusiasm for any kind of learning. She's a Yakama Indian who goes to an urban, melting-pot high school. She wants to be a physical meteorologist. She loves to learn, but she hated to write.
Harvey's aversion to same would meet her match in Conner, a poet, waitress and teacher in Seattle Arts & Lectures' award-winning writing program.
Conner could pass for 21. With her pressed khakis, Doc Martens, silver jewelry and tailored shirts, she looks like a model in a high-caste Gap ad. There's nothing button-down about her job, however. Her mission is to make writing personal, to turn it from something the students must do, to something they can't do without.
Today, teenagers try on identities like characters in a costume drama. On any day at West Seattle High, you can find a boy in Day-Glo magenta hair, a blonde cheerleader, a buff athlete, a girl in peasant gingham and a boy who looks like the second coming of Neil Young. The next day, they switch. It's the cheerleader in the overalls, and the gang wannabe in the pressed jeans.
"Kids realize that they can have these many faces, these many voices," says Conner. "They can be a jock or a cheerleader and yet go against what they know that to be." Their school, the stage set for trying on these roles, is a peeling, crumbling building carrying the exhausted air of some Eastern bloc pedagogical institute whose ideology has fallen seriously out of favor. Next year the school district will gut everything but its historic shell, and build a new school.
Into its gloomy, paint-chipped halls each Friday this semester has come Conner, courtesy of the Seattle Arts & Lectures Writers in the Schools program.
Today, it's a cold day in March. In Kira's class, Conner is trying to get teenagers to be kids again, to reach down into that part of them that feels the most vulnerable. "All of you have been in extreme situations," she says. "Whether you were the victim of that situation, or a bystander in that situation," she says. Write about that time, she says - and then escape from it.
They write for 10 minutes. There's total quiet. Then, scrawled on lined paper, Conner gets:
-- A student's complaint that he can't do it. "Excuses are mountains of nothingness," Conner says.
-- A poem of lost love.
-- A poem about an unspecified "night from hell": daredevil driving, drugs.
-- One that says, "I wish I could escape from all the stresses and problems in my Life. I wish I could turn into a bird. . . . I would have no questions about Life except where to fly. No one to bug me no one to impress Just me and the sky."
-- From a blonde in perfect makeup and pressed jeans, a poem about a 4-year-old who can remember the smell of a one-room house, cheap brandy on the lips of her birth mother.
-- One student writes that she can't wait to escape . . . West Seattle High School. In turn a boy writes a poem that calls the girl a bitch.
Conner: "You used the word bitches in a way I don't like. It offends me. But I appreciate the fact that you wrote that."
Later, the class's regular teacher, concerned about the exchange, asks if Conner can tell students not to take the writing personally. "No," Conner says. "I don't want to make that statement. Because that's the first time he's ever written anything."
The poet as lawyer
Since 1994, Writers in the Schools has sent some of the region's edgiest writers - Matthew Stadler, Rebecca Brown and Charles Mudede, among others - into Seattle School District schools, to get kids to write about what they care about. The program also helps teachers strengthen their own commitment to writing, despite multiple other demands on their time.
Kip Greenthal, director of the program, says the new push for standards-based education puts enormous pressure on teachers, sometimes to the detriment of trying something new. "Teachers are under so much pressure to meet standards," says Greenthal. "They're losing their sense of creativity in what they do."
Conner became a teacher thanks to another teacher, one who asked a question that went beyond the syllabus. Raised in St. Louis, educated at the University of Kansas, a university teacher asked her one day, "why I wanted to be a lawyer," Conner remembers. "I said, `I think the way I say things could alter someone's point of view.' She said, `It sounds to me like you want to teach.' "
In Seattle, she got her master of fine arts degree at the University of Washington. She taught for a time at the Bush School, but was uncomfortable with the stratification of the exclusive school - "everybody was aware of who was on scholarship, whose dad was whose. A lot of students didn't care, and a lot of students did . . . and I didn't like that I was a representation of students who weren't there - a person of color."
At West Seattle, she's gotten what she wanted - kids from every spectrum of the racial rainbow. She achieves results with a combination of vulnerability, openness and gentle bullying. "I tell them, I could have been more when I was in high school," she says. "I've had instructors say I can't do this or that. And I did it anyway. I want them to know that. Their instructors are real people."
The topics are tough: These are children who have been exposed to so much -in the movies, in the media, in their own lives. "I think we're so desensitized now," says senior Jessica Worley. "I grew up with all the Chucky movies," the slasher movies about a talking doll who kills everyone in sight. But it hasn't killed that teenaged hunger for the world, says Worley: "You sit in class, you have that human curiosity thing, you want to know why."
There are no grades. There's only the force of Conner's enthusiasm and expectations. "They're graded on how active they're being," she says. "As long as they're trying, they won't flunk the class." Anything goes in terms of language and topic, as long as the kids show no disrespect with the language they use.
In return, the kids revel in the attention, and the respect. Conner's teaching is "awesome. It's amazing. She's so real," says Tyler Wong, a senior. "She's not like a teacher. It's like she just came from another planet, but she's teaching things we would never have learned.
"I just thought we would write poetry and not discuss anything. She came in, she sat down, she said, we got 20 questions. Ask me anything. After five or six questions we started asking real questions, like where did you grow up, what was your childhood like. She told me she used to beat up all the little boys in her town.
"I hated to write and I hated to read. I really don't like to read now, but I really like to write."
The results can be startling. Sometimes the classroom talks almost shimmer with humanity, a vivid reminder of how close to the heart of things being a teenager can be.
A semester of writing
Here's a fly-on-the-wall report from a semester with Lauri Conner, and some student work.
Sounds and smells
It's April. Things are warming up outside, and kids are getting that thousand-yard stare, that get-me-outta-here look. Assignment: close their eyes, smell something, "take it out of context," says Conner. "Separate it. Write about the one thing you focused on."
"I smelled my sleeve, and it smelled like detergent."
"I smelled the girls around me. They smelled good. They smelled the way things are supposed to smell."
"I smelled the animal crackers. It made me think of when I was young and we went with my mom to the grocery store."
"I smelled my hand. It made me think of a dream. Lying next to some faceless guy, listening to Nine Inch Nails. It smelled warm, sweaty, like I just woke up from sleep."
One boy says he can't write.
"I'm not like you. I'm not a poet."
"How do you know?" says Conner.
"I know myself."
"How old are you?"
"You don't know yourself. You don't know what you're capable of."
"I do know myself."
"No, you don't," she says. Her smile is warm, but fierce.
Conner tells a journalism class to write a piece about a hero they have; first deifying them, then demonizing them.
"Martin Luther King is my hero, right?" Conner says. "We know that he worked for social change. And we also know that he slept around on his wife."
"I'm sorry, guys, but most men in power sleep around on their wives."
Another beat of silence. A boy says, sotto voce, "That's why they want power."
As for Harvey, the months with Conner haven't turned her into a poet, though she's written some things of which she's justifiably proud. But they have turned her into a reader.
She's reading Sherman Alexie now. She's struck with how much the reservation, where she stays summers, is like Alexie's books: "Every time I see someone there, my dad picks them up and we find out that he's a cousin."
"I never liked reading," she says. "I only read about things I wanted to know about. I never read for pleasure. Now I do. . . . I thought, `Well, I could give a book a try.' "
The following writing is published as written by West Seattle High School students who participated in Lauri Conner's writing class. Conner teaches as part of the Seattle Arts & Lectures Writers in the Schools program.
by Kira Harvey
I am a Redman
Rage and anger are my tools.
Marked by savage instincts,
I am radical and induce wrath.
You came into the night and stole my children,
"Kill the Indian, save the children"
Rolled off your tongues
As your scissors severed their ties.
Pure and holy you beat the devil of war-like souls.
Lost evil souls.
Saved by your mercy.
Do you love me now? Or am I
Past hope? Did
The animalisms injure my chance?
You love to hate me.
Honor my warrior drive with your
Your faces painted with the anger of my people,
The people you created.
by Autumn Rusch
I fear speaking, to get up, and talk to a group of people,
I fear things like mascots that look like big bees that follow
I fear being alone in a room with a white wall without a
I fear graduation,
I fear situations in which I have no control over,
I fear . . . letting people down,
I fear not being "Little Miss Perfect,"
I fear the darkness that creeps up at night that forms the
teeth that eat me on my bed at night,
I fear that I'm becoming my mother,
I fear that I'm going insane and someday down the line I
will be that person strapped to a bed in some mental
institution in God knows where, wearing mittens to keep me
from scratching out my eyes,
I fear the fear that I fear.
by James, who did not want his last name used.
I wish I could escape from all the stresses and problems in my Life. I wish I could turn into a bird and fly away be peaceful just have the wind in my fethers and no problems on my mind I would sore across the world being free of pain and stress. I would have no questions about life except where to fly. no one to bug me no one to impress Just me and the sky. No one to tell me what to do or tell me im not smart enough to do it. no one to hold me down. I would be free to do what i want, no guns, no violence, Just some clouds to make me happy.
by Katie Wear
1. I can keep myself busy without falling.
2. I could get lost in fake dreams.
3. I will become what I need.
4. I should be able to keep my head.
5. I did already lose it for a time.
6. I sometimes feel overwhelmed with weight.
7. I always make it better w/time.
8. I won't let myself become nothing.
9. I mostly blame myself, sometimes not.
10. I usually pretend everything is fine . . . it's not.
11. I actually tell myself it is.
12. I hope I will be able to move forward.
Partner in crime
by Emily Rose
my partner in crime
my partner in love
he watched me go through
and by me he stood
as he is facing the biggest decision in his life
I become his mentor
I lost my place
in his mind
as he goes
I love him as my brother
for we share the family
always wanted . . .
staring into the night
for a heart of gold
won't spend endless nights
on the phone to me
not being able to grasp what is important to him
what ever was
I must support his decision
it pains me too since it affects me
as it does him
I love and cherish his smile for
is no longer my partner
but will always
be my partner
by Tyler Wong
(written from the point of view of a mother whose child has been arrested for planning to shoot up a school)
What did I do? I'm not a bad person. My son is only twelve he doesn't even have feelings of hate yet. How could he, I didn't hate at that age. He has gone to good schools, been around the crowd I wanted him too.
15 times he was planning to shoot someone. I gave him those walkie-talkies for Christmas.
Just because my son threatened doesn't mean he was going to do it.
It's the older cousin! It's his fault. That's why I made him go to the new school. It's not my fault, you can't blame me.
Those teachers, they need training, Why didn't they help him. More social workers can stop the violence. You people put my kid in jail! You people!
by Sheneya Palmer
I will not allow self hatred to stop my own self love
I will not allow self pity
To conquer determination of beyond and above
I will allow myself to touch the bright blue sky
I will allow myself in the future or dreaming past
To never lie down and obey an arrogant lie
I will become someone to ask and behold
I will become someone to never be untold
To never be untold of all beauty
which can be possessed
From the interior of that disturbed soul
To the exterior of one which over no one
I will reach beyond my limits
I will grow a blossoming rose
I will take self love as well as yours
and accept life's highs and lows