Tuesday, March 2, 2010


My name is Kelly Barnhill and I am corrupting the youth of America. I do not pretend to atone for – nor, indeed, Ladies and Gentlemen, do I regret – my crimes. Each of us has our role to play during our time on earth – scholars, sinners, saints and leaders. I write fiction and teach the writing of fiction. I am the worst kind of criminal.

Let me just say right now that I fully intend to use my position with the mighty 5 to promote and spread my criminal network throughout the world. Each one of you has the power to bring the world to its knees. Each one of you can subvert assumptions with a well-turned phrase, to strangle power with narrative line.

As a writer and a teacher, I've been part instigator, part irritator, part insidious whisperer, and part provocateur. Writing and reading fiction, I believe, is a transgressive act: It openly defies the Cult of the Individual by allowing us to see from the point of view of the Other. We become the Other. We see ourselves from the outside. Fiction works to challenge the assumptions of our elders, our community and our culture, and forces us to think for ourselves.

They killed Socrates for teaching the youth to think for themselves. They banned Salinger and Vonnegut and Lowry and Naylor. Hell, they even banned Judy Freaking Blume. I cannot hope to even shine the boots of these Criminal Masterminds, but I can and will do what I can to spread their doctrine of transformative thinking like a virus in an un-vaccinated population.

As a teacher, I've inspired the ire of parents, administrators, local business owners and, once, a school board member. I've been told that teaching Holes to seventh graders glorified the criminal justice system. I've been told that teaching The Crucible would lead children into witchcraft. I've been told that a single read of a certain Kelly Link story would lead my students into a life of thievery and nymphomania. I struggled mightily to keep a straight face. The next day, I had my students read it again.

Once, I gave a class an assignment: Make a list, I said, of everything that defines you: tall, short, smart, slow, athletic, ambidextrous, whatever. Then, take each descriptor and write it's opposite. Turn that list into a new character, and write a story from that person's point of view.

Six different irate parents called me that night, telling that such an assignment had the potential to make their sons go gay. Which was funny, because all six students identified their “opposite” as straight. Even still, the very idea that their children's attempt to think and feel as someone different from themselves – indeed, as a polar opposite as themselves – would somehow alter them beyond recognition.

This, of course, is completely true. And rubbed my hands together and slowly smiled.

I told them that writing fiction releases the mind from the shackles of the Self. The more we can see the world through the eyes of people not like us, the more we can see the world as it is: multi-layered, contradictory, chaotic, life-giving, and utterly, utterly wild. This is the audacious power of the imagination. This is the transgressive power of thought. We read, we write, we think, all to alter ourselves. And we are changed forever.

Thinking, Ladies and Gentlemen, is dangerous. And therefore fiction is dangerous. Your books make you a marked man, a marked woman, a dangerous individual. They make you a threat. Live dangerously, friends. Live to transgress.


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