“I grip the phone to my ear trying not to hear what my Dad just told me,” an author reads from her book. “She’s gone, Ari. Your Mom’s gone.” A short time later, a different published writer reads a selection from his short story, “The dull natural lighting in the kitchen is not ideal for writing suicide letters.”
The startling impact of these sentences may remind you of Ernest Hemingway, but they come from kids. And not top students at a private school — but rather from at-risk teens at a school of last chances.
“It’s kind of a last stop,” English teacher Marjie Bowker says of Scriber Lake High School, the only alternative high school in the Edmonds School District, north of Seattle. Many students at Scriber come from troubled backgrounds that make it challenging to concentrate on schoolwork. They are grappling with problems no child — or adult for that matter — should have to deal with: like physical abuse, homelessness, a parent in jail and deep poverty. Bowker wasn’t sure how to get these students engaged in the classroom until she hatched an idea for a writing assignment.
“I decided I’m going to start with their stories, because any time I ask them about their own lives, they were really invested,” Bowker says. “It started with one group of kids that took a writing assignment really seriously. And the assignment was to write about a hardship they had experienced.”
What came back were powerful, honest portrayals of self- harm, parental abandonment and peer pressure coming from kids who had very little previous writing experience. The writing wasn’t perfect, but students were clearly motivated by the assignment. Bowker completely reworked her curriculum around one central idea: these kids have stories to tell and no one could tell them like they can. That’s how Bowker’s English class morphed into Scriber Lake Writing Program — a dynamic course in which students write narratives, perform them in readings and even publish them into a book of short stories every year.
The first time a student read in front of the class, revealing his surprising history in a gang, Bowker realized the power of this approach as an exercise in healing. “When he got up in front of the class and read his story, he said it was like opening a can of pop and he was letting the fizz out, letting people know who he really was.”
Which is not to imply that Bowker’s class is simply group therapy. It is first and foremost a rigorous program of writing and re-writing. Bowker challenges teens to engage readers from the first sentence. “Don’t say the word ‘despair’ or ‘anger’ or ‘sadness’”, Bowker instructs an intimate class of 15 students. “Show the emotion in the details.”
A student gives it a shot. “I wrote, ‘The dull natural lighting in the kitchen is not ideal for writing suicide letters. My hands are shaky and my stomach is weak.’” Bowker asks how that student has used juxtaposition. “He’s talking about a suicide letter,” a girl says, “yet he’s worrying about the lighting.”
Since 2011, when Bowker began the Scriber Lake Writing Program, students have risen to the challenge — putting blood, sweat and tears vividly on the page. “I cut deep into my skin with a sharp thin blade and wince. …Tiny little drops of red started appearing through the surface. They flow together and roll off my ankle. I let out a sigh of relief.”
Former Scriber Lake High School student Carolina wrote those words a few years ago in the first group of kids who participated in the writing program. She says they didn’t consider themselves writers but soon they had created such powerful work they wanted to share it with more people. Bowker’s students began performing readings for the whole school.
Then the school published a book of their short stories called We Are Absolutely Not Okay — and it helped students turn a page: transforming pain and despair into hope and renewal.
“We started writing our stories and then one day we were sitting there signing copies of this book that we had written,” Carolina says. “It gave me a lot of confidence not just as a person but also as a writer. It takes a lot of guts to be really exposed and publish something like that.”
Principal Kathy Clift says the school didn’t intend to publish a book of short stories every year but the students insisted. “They loved having their voices heard,” says Clift. “They loved that it put the past in the past but also helped and encouraged other people.”
The impact of the writing program grows each year. Scriber has published four books and counting, and they are mandatory reading at Edmonds Community College. Bowker’s students perform plays based on their life experiences in partnership with Seattle Public Theater in Seattle. Bowker shares the details of teaching narrative writing to at-risk students in two books that she has co-authored.
The big idea of listening to what’s on the minds of teens has had an effect on the entire student body at Scriber Lake High School, especially when it comes to discipline. When kids are sent to the principal, she gets to the heart of what’s making the student act out and suspensions have gone down dramatically.
Most importantly, for individual students the impact of Scriber Lake Writing Program is personal and often permanent. Carolina is in college with a very specific goal for her future. She wants to be an English teacher and hopes to start her teaching career as a student teacher at Scriber Lake.
She says, “I have to share the fact that anyone can get this healing from writing.”