Suspense and suspension

Late last month, Charles Carithers got an English assignment: Write "a vivid horror story" about a mysterious person in the community who had a "shocking" secret in his past. So the 11th-grader at Boston Latin Academy, a competitive-admissions public school, wrote about a student athlete (which he is) who went after his English teacher with a chain saw.

The teacher saw details that hit too close to home. Charles got a three-day suspension. The school is defending the action, and Charles's mother is appealing it.

In the current climate of jitters in schools across the United States, chainsaw murders might not be the best topic for an essay. But assignments that open the door to writing about chainsaw murders might not be all that inspired, either. Adults can say that they weren't as prone to writing about such gore in their day, or that horror is more effective when less crudely rendered. But high-schoolers don't think like adults - and they are routinely doused with ridiculously crude and gory films like "Scream" (1,2, and 3) and "I Know What You Did Last Summer," all of which Charles said he pondered as he created his opus. (As did perhaps a peer - not suspended - whose protagonist murdered children and cut them up for fertilizer.)

It seems like a "teachable moment" that engendered a hard-line response. And such debacles happen across the US. Why no open discussion of what's acceptable? Or specifics: a horror story, children, but no guns or chain saws allowed. Or, show me the difference between horror and tension.

Assignments can't be created in a cultural vacuum - and no one should expect the results to be, either.


(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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