“It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night… I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! … and so by degrees -- very gradually --I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.”
That is, of course, from the beginning of the classic Edgar Allen Poe story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” published in 1843. Perhaps you are also familiar with Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846): “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. …but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity.”
If you are familiar with them, it is quite likely you first encountered them in school. I remember reading the first one in middle school, and the second one in high school. Poe engaged my imagination. And, I feel compelled to point out, I have no murder victims buried under my floorboards or behind any brick walls.
I grow weary of complaining about parents and government officials trying to prevent history teachers from teaching actual history; now, here in our town, people are calling for the head (or at least the job) of an English teacher who dared to engage her students in creativity and imagination. And we have a school board member castigating the school superintendent for not punishing said teacher harshly enough.
And what was the crime? This creative writing prompt: “I never meant to kill her. I only wanted to hurt her, but now her ghost follows me everywhere.”
Some students were uncomfortable with this assignment because it took them to “a dark place.” This may well be. The teacher’s stated goal was to get them to stretch themselves and get outside the box - which is never comfortable. As I understand it, she did not invent the prompt but learned of it through a popular website for English teachers. There are a lot of ways it could have been expanded, depending on the student doing it. Just looking at the prompt itself, I get the following ideas which could become the moral of this story: You have to take responsibility for your actions. Bad actions, intentional or not, can haunt you the rest of your life. Maybe “only wanting to hurt someone” is a bad idea because it can spiral out of control and destroy lives. My point is, a prompt like this could inspire a meaningful and worthwhile thought process. If it were purely about the alleged joy of committing murder, and nothing else, it would not have begun with contrition and bad consequences.
Let’s say that using the prompt really was a bad idea. Even so, the teacher has suffered enough and clearly learned from it - why keep hammering at her? Should this one assignment drive her out of her chosen profession?
In fact, why keep hammering at teachers, period? We have a crisis in teaching in this country. More and more teachers are quitting, and more and more young people are deciding they don’t want to become teachers after all, because they see how teachers are treated today.
For the life of me, I can’t figure out how we got to the point that people think “making students comfortable” is the primary aim of education. It is the opposite. And often those same people are perfectly happy to make other people’s children uncomfortable to prevent any momentary discomfort for their own.
How’s this for a prompt: “I didn’t mean to kill the teaching profession, now her ghost follows me everywhere.”
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