Don't judge a child by his imagination(National Post February 6, 2008)

Barbara Kay, National Post 

Published: Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Seventeen-year-old Brendan Jones was expelled from an Ontario high school last week for a thought crime: During a creative writing exam he wrote a short story featuring an imagined act of violence against a teacher.

Short stories are fiction, of course. And yet the principal of his school was apparently so horrified by Brendan's "crime," he phoned the police, who made a sheepish appearance at the boy's home. One can imagine the parents' horror at the sight of them.

Nobody has accused Brendan Jones of beating up a teacher, of belonging to a group directing hate against teachers, of counselling another student to beat up a teacher or of inciting people to violence in a public forum.

Which is why I say he was expelled for a thought crime. If thinking up and writing down as fiction acts of violence were really an offence worthy of expulsion from one's particular "guild" or primary institutional home, the entire writing industry would shut down.

I can speak with a certain authority on the subject. I edit an annual competition for creative writing by high school students in Montreal-area secondary schools. Those submissions judged worthy of inclusion in our anthology (about 200 of 1,000 submitted) must meet only one standard: writing excellence for the entrant's age group. Themes and storylines are left entirely to the writer's discretion.

Over the last 25 years, I have vetted thousands of stories and poems by students like Brendan. And violence is commonplace amongst their fictional works.

Here is what adolescents mostly write about when they choose their own subject: love, good and bad, finding it and losing it; friendship and its trials; the fear and consequences of social rejection, which often include distressing revenge fantasies over affections spurned or ridicule by the opposite sex; family relationships, the joys, disappointments and complexities thereof; awe

at nature's bounty; and self-hatred. Students anguish over war and oppression as well. It isn't all solemnity -- we get science fiction and comic relief -- but it's mostly solemn, and mostly about feelings.

Adolescence is a volatile period, and creative writing is an excellent outlet for the stormy highs and lows typical of this transitional bridge from childhood to maturity. When I first began editing the anthology, I was actually quite startled and dismayed by the proportion of submissions that dealt with thoughts of -- and also vividly imagined attempts at -- suicide. Yet none of these students that I know of ever attempted suicide, and certainly none succeeded, or their writing would have been adduced as evidence of intention.

I well remember one striking case that caused me enough unease to launch a circumspect investigation. A 15-year-old wrote a short story that described a girl recalling the steps leading up to her gory murder of her mother. The details and the writing were so graphic, and so vividly expressed -- the writer was obviously extremely talented -- that my editorial committee havered for some time around the propriety of publishing it. The oddest thing about it was that the story was written with such assurance, literary maturity and stylistic brio that the prize jury had no choice but to award her first prize!

That girl was not only smart and talented, she also had a wise mother who knew the difference between a vivid imagination and an evil purpose (I met her and we shared a laugh about the gap between her daughter's unsettling story and the happy reality of her family's normalcy). That young writer ended up winning a Rhodes Scholarship and is now a mother herself and a successful professional who contributes generously to community life.

Brendan's principal did him an injustice. When authorities assume that the creative impulse is a window into an individual's intentions, they are succumbing to a totalitarian temptation. Brendan should be reinstated, and his parents might want to think seriously about a lawsuit. This case cries out for a bud-nipping legal precedent.