Please don’t lock me up

There’s something of a flap going on about Greg Olsen, the Chicago Bears recent first-round draft pick.

Apparently, as a college freshman at Miami, Olsen and some of his buddies recorded a rap song with lewd lyrics and demeaning references to women. The media recently picked up on this, resulting in a denunciation by the school and an apology from Olsen.

“It was an immature mistake on my part and I certainly recognize it was wrong. I…have become a more mature person over the past three years,” he said.

Let me tell you a story from my college days. I was a Resident Advisor in Heitz Hall on the campus of Bradley University. The dorm had just gone co-ed on alternating floors. My floor, 4-B, was of course guys, mostly sophomores. The floor below us, 3-B, was girls.

At the north end of each floor, windows overlooked a breezeway between our dorm and Wyckoff Hall. One day I heard a commotion at the window. Some guys down on the ground were exchanging insults and rude remarks with the girls on 3-B.

A bunch of my guys ran to the window and I heard more yelling. I assumed my guys were being chivalrous and telling off the guys on the ground. I was wrong. What my guys were doing was dropping water balloons onto the girls’ heads as they leaned out of their window.

Once I chased them off and restored order, I went downstairs to 3-B, to assess the situation and apologize for my floor’s behavior. Unbeknownst to me, the girls were already on a revenge mission. The moment I stepped onto their floor, I was deluged with several water bombs which the girls had managed to catch intact, along with a bucket they’d filled up at the bathtub tap.

After the assault, the girls went wide-eyed, realizing they’d just blasted the R.A. from upstairs. It was at that point that their R.A., Jill, emerged from her room, where she’d been studying with headphones on and was blissfully aware of the raging conflict. She observed me standing outside her door, soaked to the skin, and said (I’m quoting here), “Huh.”

What did I do? I started to laugh. After all, it was pretty funny.

Later, after changing clothes, I called Jill to discuss ways that we could repair the strained relations between our floors. My memory is a bit hazy now, but one of the activities involved having our residents serenade each other.

The girls went first, sending a contingent upstairs to recite a poem, the theme of which was, “You guys are dorks but we will tolerate you.” I chose to respond by composing a little ditty that we took downstairs and performed for the girls. It began:

    We’re the girls of Heitz 3-B
    Doo-dah, doo-dah
    We’re the girls who have V.D.
    Oh, doo-dah day…

…and so on. If the language of rap had existed at the time, I’m sure I would have appropriated it, and my song would have been considered as demeaning to women as Olsen’s number. Thankfully there was no recording made of our performance, or I would be publicly apologizing now and Bradley would disavow any connection with me, although I would continue to receive donation requests from the alumni association.

The fact is, then as well as now, young people just don’t get terribly bent out of shape over this sort of thing. Today’s rap and hip-hop music has outrageous lyrics, but to quote Steely Dan, the girls don’t seem to care. Fortunately, there are plenty of concerned adults willing to take offense on their behalf. Don Imus can speak to that.

This brings me, unfortunately, to the sad tale of Mr. Cho at Virginia Tech. In the inevitable yet futile quest to explain the actions of a madman, people are looking at the disturbing stories Cho wrote in his creative writing classes. So now teachers are panicking. Allen Lee, an 18-year old student at Cary-Grove High School in suburban Chicago, was charged with disorderly conduct and dumped by his Marine recruiter after writing a “violent, profanity-laced” essay.

Speaking as a veteran of several creative writing classes, I’ll tell you that freedom is absolutely essential to the process. Lee’s English teacher, as she should, assured her students that there would be no judgment or censorship of their work.

I have read Lee’s essay, and it’s a piece of shit – incoherent rambling about sex with dead bodies and bitching about his teacher’s brownies. But he followed instructions. Do we ruin his life?

My creative writing class in high school was one of the best experiences of my life. [Begin flagrant name-dropping] One of my classmates and best friends was Jeff Vintar, who has written the screenplays for the films Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and I, Robot. [End flagrant name-dropping] To this day, Jeff and I have a particular fondness – bordering on reverence – for our creative writing teacher, John Kroc.

From day one, Kroc established the ground rules. Write whatever we want, no restrictions except one – it had to be good. We did what any high school students would do when granted absolute freedom. F-bombs were dropped. Controversial subjects were broached. (And in a Catholic school, no less.) Our stories were photocopied and distributed to the whole class with our names removed, and Kroc would critique them. Savagely.

If Allen Lee or Seung-Hui Cho had been in our class, Kroc would have torn them a new one – not for the subject matter, but for the crappy writing.

It was in this atmosphere that I wrote a short story called “Entrapment,” about a man arrested for molesting an 11-year old girl. The story begins with the newspaper report, and then three different perspectives are presented, as the story is recounted in turn by the arresting officer, the girl’s mother, and the accused man.

Each of them sees the situation differently. The policeman assumes the perp is a typical scumbag. The mother is simply clueless (based on my impression of my own mother at the time). Finally the accused man speaks, and insists that he was seduced by a girl who knew exactly what she was doing. The language is frank and somewhat explicit.

I got a B on the story. Aside from some minor technical issues, Kroc thought it was very well done, although he felt I’d made the girl a little too young.

As an adult, I now agree. But at the time, I was sixteen, and eleven didn’t seem outrageously young for a Lolita, although I did give the issue a lot of thought when writing. The point of the story was that adults make presumptions about children and blind themselves to characteristics that don’t fit their preconceived notions, and I wanted an age that would be plausible yet young enough to get the reader’s attention.

In college, I rewrote the story for another writing class, altering my main theme to be more about the power women have over men (a foreshadowing of my future marriage). A couple of women in my class thought I was a bit of a jerk, but no one took me for a child molester.

Today I‘d be put away for writing a story like that.

If what you write about were a reliable indicator of your personality, Stephen King would be wreaking havoc across the New England countryside as we speak. We need to focus less on Cho’s essay topics than on the characteristics that more clearly labeled him a threat. The stalking. The withdrawal. The profound anger.

The guns.

As disturbing as it was, Cho’s writing didn’t kill anyone.

UPDATE 5/24/07: Charges against Lee have been dropped.

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