Epitaph for Dreams

Day 6: Slice of Life Writing Challenge

*Today’s Slice of Life utilizes the “Lifting a line” writing strategy. With this technique, a writer selects a line or phrase that captures her attention, and begins a free write, which will often flow in new and surprising directions. The phrase I’m lifting was from a student’s writing journal (permission was granted): “afraid of dreaming”

Afraid of dreaming. Her face said it all. She was crushed. Shut down. Shattered.

Courtney isn’t just my physical twin; but she my soul’s other half. We are a symbiotic duet, each enhancing the other. I’m the face, but she is the voice. I’m the head, but she is the heart. I’m the talker, and she is the writer.

She came into the school-year as a bright, happy, dream-loving girl who saw no limits and knew no boundaries for her poetic voice. Teachers had come to accept that she didn’t fit the mold, or fit in any boxes. They let her creative voice flit about. 

Then Mr. Matthews came to our school, with his old metal box, determined that every student would fit neatly inside. He had ideas about what constituted good writing, and he was ready to corral his minions neatly in between the lines.

Her writing wings were slowly being clipped, one mini-lesson at a time. One dictated prompt after another. Courtney had dutifully drafted her persuasive essay, defending an animal group half a world away. She loved penguins, but was assigned white rhinos. Mr. Matthews said she knew too much about the little wobbling tuxedoes, and someone else was already writing about them. As much as she tried, the African beast just didn’t stir her soul.

Yet when the time neared for our unit on poetry, Courtney was once again flitting in anticipation. I knew of the journals that she had filled, piled on our bedroom shelves, creating poems of all types in style and scope. Couplets, diamantes, limericks, and haikus. Concrete poems, cinquains, acrostics, and riddles. But my hummingbird sister lived and breathed free verse. It is where she gave birth to dreams. Where her imagination flew freely, soaring to places unknown, and ascending to joys that mere mortals seldom taste.

The fateful day finally arrived. We read, sang, and whispered poems from around the world; the words dripping from our tongues. We opened our journals, eager to play. To create. To reach. To dream.

After a few moments, out came the red pen. The sword of truth. Mr. Matthews began drawing his boundary lines, hemming in our ideas, so that our poems would be “right”. He said there were rules, and he was intent on administering them. 

Courtney sat, chained to her chair, with shoulders slumped, and eyes glazed over. I felt her dejection wash over me.

Her hopes dashed by the copious red ink, flowing like blood over the pages in her journal. I set my pencil down, too saddened to pretend compliance. 

Wasn’t a teacher supposed to open doors and show us the way? To set our dreams to flight? To give lift to our voice? Did he really believe his crimson critiques would encourage her to be a better writer? What did he even think was a “better writer”?

But in that moment, I knew her doors were shut. Sealed tight. Voice sapped. Wings clipped. Dreams perished.

Boxed in.

Sure, I knew she’d continue to “write” in school. She knew how to pen those thoughtless, sanitized responses that other kids were proficient at dredging up. But she had swallowed her voice. She had steeled her heart with a promise. 

A silent vow to never again empty her soul in the pages of a journal prescribed by others. 

I picked up my pencil and scribbled a pair of tombstones, side by side, with an epitaph scrawled across them. 

The day our dreams died.


9 thoughts on “Epitaph for Dreams

  1. You know I use to get out that “red” pen. Truth be told, sometimes I even used green just because it didn’t have that “red” pen stigma associated with it. But now the red & green pens are retired. And, if I feel like I need to grab that “pen”, I ask myself if the art teacher would ever use a red pen on a piece of student artwork. The answer is NEVER. Thank you for such a thought provoking post.


  2. This is so moving. I have been thinking about this since lunch. As a writing teacher, I’ve been thinking much about how to teach the genre without squelching the stories. I’ll keep working at this. Thanks again for sharing!

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  3. “Did he really believe his crimson critiques would encourage her to be a better writer?” one of so many lines that jumped at me and made my heart die just a bit more. So sad and so well written.
    Thanks – and thanks for reminding me of “lift a line” – a great way to help myself and students begin their writing when stuck.


  4. Oh! Heartbreaking! What a beautifully written warning for all of us writing teachers. I love the line lifting technique and have enjoyed reading Kevin’s comments in which he lifts lines from your posts. If I were to lift a line from this one, it would be: “But my hummingbird sister lived and breathed free verse.” That sure seems like a story starter to me!

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  5. Greg, this is a sad and stirring tale. You’re words, “Mr. Matthews began drawing his boundary lines,” created a new image for me. I hope teachers like this are becoming fewer and fewer in number, as we need adults who encourage creativity from children and not just compliance.

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful writing!

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