My eighth-grade son Paul is working on a new story, a sort of ancient-Welsh-myths-flavored seafaring adventure; and as usual, he likes to discuss his progress with me, writing out a page or two and then carrying his laptop into the kitchen so I can read it. Last night my minor critique concerned consistency of diction. For the most part his narrator would speak in slightly archaic, Welsh-myths-flavored language, but once in a while he'd drop into 21st-century boyspeak. All I needed to do was mention the issue, and Paul honed in on the details: "Oh, I can change crazy to mad here," that sort of thing. He's quick, and he has considerable technical confidence. The story isn't advanced enough (and may never be advanced enough . . . stamina is always an issue for young writers) for us to be able to discuss characterization and plot devices, but the boy does comprehend sentence control.
Because he's an intense reader, rereader, and listener to stories, I asked him what writers' styles he was using as a model for his own. He immediately answered, "I think of Dickens when I'm writing regular sentences and Twain when I'm writing dialogue." Now that's a grandiose response for a 14-year-old fiction writer and is probably more wishful thinking than fact, but in truth Paul is very familiar with David Copperfield and Huck Finn because he used to wallow in them as audio books before he learned how to read fluently. And every once in a while he'll get David off the shelf and read a few pages before turning to something else . . . exactly what I did with War and Peace when I was young.
Influence is complex; and I know that a pack of young-adult dystopian novels, plus 1930s John Tunis baseball narratives, plus Tolkien and his followers, etc., etc., are collecting themselves in his brain, alongside Dickens and Twain and the Comic Book History of the Universe and the Frog and Toad series to create an amorphous and ever-growing library of literary influence. But even as a middle-school boy he talks like a writer . . . we talk to each other like writers.
Yet this year, according to the heinous New England States' standardized middle school hell-test, Paul's writing skills were subpar. How could this be? He can spell, punctuate, write complex yet complete sentences, organize his thoughts, and draw a conclusion. So why was his score so low? I asked him to describe the test. He said it was a single question that required him to take a side for or against school uniforms. "And, Mom, there's nothing interesting to say about that. They gave us four sheets of paper for that stupid question, and I said everything that needed to be said on less than one sheet."
Ah. So this is the point of standardized tests: to encourage our children to produce pages and pages of swollen, pointless blather about a topic they don't care about. Excellent.