I would go living in lights

I would go living in lights: November 2010

Sunday, November 7, 2010


It's evening in Nablus. A massive banner displaying a picture of Yasser Arafat has been hung up overnight, dominating the view from our kitchen windows; Jeremy told me this morning that the Arabic text running across its border means, according to his best translation, "the youth of today will be the martyrs of the future." Nick and I sit at the table while youthful voices filter up from the cafes on the street below and the tea-kettle begins to boil on the stove. Complaint time has arrived.

"My kids suck at essays," I begin.

"Mine too. Ugh, they just won't write anything interesting."

"It's like they can't grasp the concept of hypotheticals!"

Harsh? Yeah, I guess. But I have never in my life come across a group of teenagers- or anyone, for that matter- so utterly lacking in imagination. My girls are sweet and hard-working and motivated and smart and just fantastically lovely in pretty much every sense, but trying to get them to wrap their minds around anything outside the realm of concrete fact is like building a nuclear superconductor from scratch.

Picture this. Thursday afternoon. I've written an essay prompt on the board: If you could travel through time, what time would you go to and what would you do there? Unprompted but armed with a month and a half of experience of the kinds of totally boring and unrelated things my students usually come up with when faced with this type of question, I've already explained it four times from every possible angle.

"All right," I say finally. "Got it? Go."

One or two girls rest the tips of their pens on their notebooks but write nothing, intending, I can only assume, to create a false impression of industry. The rest stare at the blank pages in front of them. Pencils are gnawed. Brows are furrowed.

Eventually, Rahaf raises her hand. "Miss?"


"Is... can we... do a story? Can I make up something?"

Oh my God. How is that not implicit in the prompt? "Yes!" I half-shout. It's like I've just watched the apple falling on Isaac Newton's head. "If you don't make something up, you are doing it wrong."

Suddenly, everyone is writing. The resulting essays are the best I've ever received, ranging from the sweet ("I want to back in time 1994 to see how did my parents know each other and moved, and I want to see their wedding") to the brownnosing ("I would go to America to see Sierra when she was baby. Because I think she be beautiful and interesting.") to the really pretty cool ("I want to see person his name is Rambauldi, I want to know how he is know about the future and what will happen?!"). The miracle has happened. A bush has been set alight; the waters have been parted; my students have actually put words down on paper concerning something which did not occur and will not realistically ever occur.

I left class on Thursday hoping that the floodgates of creative thought had been opened. But apparently this is more a journey-of-a-thousand-steps type deal. Today, I put a paragraph on the blackboard, brimming with mistakes, for the class to correct.

I has the very good weekend! First, I was going to the America for see my parents, they was being so happy they is giving me a pet monkey names Roger. I taking Roger back to Nablus with I, and I was enter him in the Best Monkey contest. Roger was win ferst prize, and them gived us a whole years supply of monkey food.

"Miss Sierra?"


"Where is Roger?"


According to my fellow intrepid TFPers, this problem is far from exclusive to my class. Our students are smart. Really smart, in some cases. Why on earth do they greet any assignment calling for the tiniest degree of imagination with utter incomprehension? Sean reckons Palestinian students are just never taught to think creatively. But man, what do kids do if they aren't making weird stuff up? I think about 95% of my childhood was spent in my head, pretending that stick forts were impenetrable castles and carpets were rivers of magma (oh man, I'm totally playing The Floor Is Lava with my class, even if it takes them until December to grasp the concept).

Imagination: innate or learned? You tell me.