Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Katy Macek

MHS students connect with current, difficult events through fiction

Author Nicholas Butler led collegiate-level writing workshop to high schoolers

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    Author Nickolas Butler conducts a workshop Wednesday, Dec. 20, in Brandon Gullicksrud's Writing With Style class at Eau Claire Memorial High School.

    Staff photo by Steve Kinderman
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I read a story during an English class recently that covered topics as diverse and mature as gun violence, sexual assault, underage drinking and bullying.

It was a fictional look at the toll peer pressure can take when high schoolers start a rumor a girl slept with one of the most well-liked boys in the school during a party. As anyone would do, she cracks. And one day, she brings a gun to school to, presumably, kill the two boys who started the rumor. 

If you were thinking, “that sounds interesting, I’d like to read that book,” you can’t because it’s not published.

“Loops” was written by McKenna Scherer, a senior at Eau Claire Memorial High School, and was the winner of “The Joel Raney Prize for Fiction” contest started by award-winning author Nickolas Butler. Butler taught a workshop on Scherer’s essay Wednesday in Brandon Gullicksrud’s Writing With Style class.

Butler, who taught a creative writing worskhop at UW-Eau Claire in Fall 2016, led Wednesday’s workshop at Memorial High School with the preface he had only taught college-level work before.

“I don’t know how to teach you except at a college level,” he told the class made up of juniors and seniors. “I trust you’ll put your thinking caps on.” 

And the 17 students in Gullicksrud’s class did for nearly 1½ hours, many of them staying through their lunch break to continue discussing Scherer’s essay. 

These students bravely and thoughtfully dug into “Loops,” suggesting fixes on everything from the title to how to make it seem more realistic that Molly, the main character, would bring a gun to school at the end of the 10-page story.

No one flinched at mentions of the phrases “sexual assault,” “underage drinking” or the word “gun.” No one mocked, teased or otherwise insulted Scherer’s work.

Most importantly, everyone had something to say, which Butler said he feared wouldn’t be the case leading up to the workshop. 

“The most amazing moment for me was ... seeing how generous the kids were with each other,” Butler said Wednesday following the class. “You really need people to be kind to one another and want to push each other forward, and that’s what happened.” 

During the class, Butler pointed this out to the students, encouraging them with their thoughtful, concise replies. He even compared the level of writing and the workshop to the classes he taught while at UW-Eau Claire. 

Butler chose to focus on areas Scherer’s essay could improve, and there are plenty, but I’m going to look instead at what she did well.

Her fictional story is full of meticulous details, clever phrases and a protagonist with which readers can identify. To some degree, we’ve all been on the receiving end of a high school rumor.

And currently the news is filled with sexual assault and sexual harrassment allegations aimed at top executives from Harvey Weinstein in the film industry to Matt Lauer of NBC’s “Today” show.

Scherer paints a portrait of the fictional character Molly carrying the weight of denial the same way many of the accusers must have felt before anyone bothered to listen.

“I looked down at my binder that had slid off my desk as my eyes had slid down, and I wished to join it on the floor,” Scherer wrote in her essay. “I imagined leaning my forehead against the coolness of it, like the door at the party, the escape from what would have been far more horrifying than everything that had happened since, which was already nearly unbearable.” 

Other moments that sound familiar to current events? None of her peers listen when Molly tries to tell them what really happened the night of the party. Her teachers tell her she needs to “stop ‘sabotaging a perfectly model student’ with my ‘teenage lies.’ ”

And Corey, the antagonist who helped start the rumor? “His reputation stayed glowing, shined up even further, in fact, and my pretty-enough-face was dropped on the floor, brushed under the carpet, then stomped on like an infestation of the worst kind.”

The high school student cracking under the weight of a rumor isn’t unfamiliar, but Gulliscksrud said Scherer’s essay shone a light on current events that may be difficult to discuss as students in high school.

“With all the headlines it feels like we are almost becoming desensitized to the issue because tragedy occurs on a frequent basis,” Gullisckrud said. “I feel fortunate we found a way through fiction to bring a catalyst to talk about some of these topics.”

Seniors Marilyn Ihinger, whose essay “Jason and the Great Sea” took second place in Butler’s fiction contest, and Kalli Charles, whose essay “Hopeful Reminiscence” took third, also took on difficult topics such as the emotional toll a physical disability can take on a person and the importance of living in the present instead of worrying about the future. 

Those aren’t easy topics to write about, even hooded under the veil of fiction. But Scherer said she didn’t doubt herself because she didn’t want parents to be blind to their children.

“When kids get into high school they will be exposed to these topics,” Scherer said. “They don’t have to be doing it but they might know people who are, or hear about it from upperclassmen. If parents think their kids aren’t hearing about it, they’re wrong, especially with social media.” 

Though fiction, she said what she wrote about were “inspired by real events.” Not a sexual assault, but she said the antagonist was inspired by a “certain” person, as were the feelings Molly felt while walking to school after the incident in “Loops” occurs.

“It is real, it is serious and peoples’ kids are aware of these things,” Scherer said. “Anybody could have written something like this, it just happened to be me.” 


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