2002 Pulitzer nominee American Culture

Is It Just My Imagination, Or Is Everybody Paranoid But Me?

Loose Leaves column, 1st run Sunday 4 February 2001 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock
Copyright 2001 Donrey Media Group

Tomorrow, I’ll return Stephen King’s “On Writing” to the library so you can check it out.

In it, King summarizes his youth to show how he came to his profession.

He started out with an active imagination, dark even in childhood, and encouraged by an adoring but quirky, single mother.

If he were a teen-ager today, the stories he wrote for his brother’s neighborhood newsletter would have landed him at some Maine Juvenile Home for the Potentially Deranged, being full of monsters and psychopaths, inspired by those cheesy horror movies of the 1950s and ’60s.

Yet no matter how you feel about “Carrie” or “The Shining,” King also has given us “Stand By Me” and “Shawshank Redemption,” the latter books and later movies of redemption, though not without gore.

“On Writing” is my first King book. I’ve seen those movies, though, and read a couple of his short stories in “The New Yorker.” They’ve now inspired me to read his novels or hear them on tapes from the library.

My current book-on-tape is “The Blind Assassin,” winner of this year’s Booker Prize. Margaret Atwood’s narrator is an old woman recounting her life, apparently to an estranged granddaughter. The other family is dead, none of natural causes. This fascinating “chick” book has a subplot that includes lizard-men from outer space who wear flammable shorts.

Was Atwood a bad girl writer in Canada?

Ceci Davidson illustration, 1989
“I imagined my Orange Stick into a motorcycle handlebar, a race car steering wheel or an airplane throttle.” Ceci Davidson illustration, 1989

In recent years I have carried a weapon, even to London.

I had one just like it as a kid.

The original Orange Stick came from a wooden block set. It was a 1-inch dowel eight to 10 inches long.

I imagined my Orange Stick into a motorcycle handlebar, a race car steering wheel or an airplane throttle. More practically, it held kite string and could dig small holes. George the terrier fetched it.

The Orange Stick also could be a dagger, spear or pistol, needed for Cops and Robbers, Cowboys and Indians, and Army.

I took the Orange Stick to Fort Smith’s Ballman Elementary often. Other boys had brought to recess their plastic pistols and rubber knives. We growled “Pow!” and “You got me!”

Dying was fun. We dramatized groans and convulsions. Dying gave a kid a moment to catch his breath — then you got up, a different soldier.

None of us, and Ballman had kids of all socioeconomic classes, seriously attacked one another or any adult.

In fifth grade the wind grabbed that spring’s kite and pulled the Orange Stick high into a tree. After a few years, I couldn’t see it anymore.

In summer 1998, I made two replicas from a hardware store dowel and a pint of paint.

One Orange Stick stays on my writing desk. I probably get by with carrying the other one everywhere because I shun the temptation of running through the newsroom or airports steering a pretend-Harley.

Oh yeah, in fourth grade my mom was called to school because I had written poems about hippies, drugs and suicide. The year was 1967.

The teacher asked Mom what kind of literature was in our house. Mom said, “‘Time,’ ‘Life’ and the ‘Arkansas Gazette.'”

Last December, a 16-year-old boy presented in drama class a monologue he wrote about a bullied boy taking revenge by blowing up his school.

The writer himself has a speech impediment and has been bullied. He also threatened three students, according to The Associated Press and the Toronto Globe and Mail.

The Ontario boy was charged on four counts of making death threats and jailed for over a month, until bail was set. His 14-year-old brother then made two threats and was jailed several weeks.

Police found neither weapons nor bomb-making materials in their home. A couple of weeks ago, the family celebrated a belated Christmas.

Canadian authors, including Atwood and Michael Ondaatje (“The English Patient”), have made the young writer a cause celebre, saying writing vents anger safely for many youths.

Yet surely, threats must be taken seriously. Note the following from our state, from last week:

“JONESBORO (AP) — An 8-year-old boy was suspended from school for three days after pointing a breaded chicken finger at a teacher and saying, POW, POW, POW.

“Kelli Kissinger, mother of first-grader Christopher, said the punishment was too severe.

“South Elementary principal Dan Sullivan said the school district has a zero-tolerance policy against weapons because the public wants it.

“In March 1998, four students and a teacher were killed and 10 others wounded when two youths opened fire outside Jonesboro’s Westside Middle School.

“Christopher said he had been called down for talking in the cafeteria and was sitting at a detention table at the time.

“‘I don’t doubt that he did it,’ Kissinger said. ‘But like his psychiatrist said, (the school) needs to be able to tell the difference between a threat and a playful act. … Chris has … an active imagination, but he’s never been violent.’

“Sullivan said punishment for a threat ‘depends on the tone, the demeanor, and in some manner you judge the intent. It’s not the object in the hand, it’s the thought in the mind. Is a plastic fork worse than a metal fork? Is a pencil a weapon?'”

Is a pencil a weapon?


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