Nikes on a Wire

Wednesday, September 14th, 2022

By Robert C. Koehler

There they were again. The dangling irony of memorial Nikes . . .

I was walking home from my neighbor’s house. They’d just had a piano recital and I was still full of music when I saw the pair of tennis shoes flung over the telephone wire that crosses my street – instantly redefining, at least for me, this moment, this piece of earth and sky. Oh my God. I don’t believe it.


In front of my house?

Every now and then I see a pair of tennis shoes flung over a telephone wire – that wire stretching through a nearby McDonald’s parking lot, for instance– and every time I do, I think about a 12-year-old boy named Jose, who shoved a bit of reality in my face twenty or so years ago. He did so as a student of mine.

I was a volunteer writing teacher at the time. This was part of my decade-long struggle with the Chicago Public Schools, which my daughter attended. One day, when she was in third grade – this is when the school system begins the farce known as standardized testing, and “education” started to mean teaching to the test – she came home angrily and declared: “Dad, I hate writing!”

Writing had become nothing more than spelling and grammar, plus an opening sentence, yada yada, conclusion. The writer’s actual knowledge and life experiences – the writer’s voice, the writer’s soul – were irrelevant. Writing was not about saying something. All that mattered was conforming to the test format. Students’ words were emptied of meaning. That no longer mattered. In fact, it was a nuisance, since meaning was determined by the writer herself and often went off in its own direction; it couldn’t easily be reduced to a number.

No wonder she hated writing!

I was beside myself with frustration. I believed in the public schools. But their (politically forced) conformity to standardized testing – good numbers meant adequate funding – was just plain wrong. As a writer myself, there was no way – no way! – I could allow my own kid to be robbed of her developing writer’s voice.

This was a long struggle, but the beginning was here at Franklin Elementary School. I wound up having a conversation with the school’s principal, who actually listened to my concerns and got my point. While she had no power to change the system, she suggested, if I was interested, that I could do some teaching at the school. I wasn’t working fulltime at that point and had some free time in my week, so she arranged with one of the teachers for me to work with a small group of kids once a week.

Well, what the heck. It was better than nothing. At that point I had done a little bit of teaching, at the college level – just enough to know how difficult it was. I was anything but confident that I knew what I was doing, but I did have a game plan. Back when I was in college, I’d had a fabulous writing teacher and mentor who helped me shatter my own long-established self-censorship with a process he simply called “free writing.” Step one: Sit down and write without stopping for ten minutes, twenty minutes or whatever. Let it flow. If you can’t think of anything to say, write “I can’t think of anything to say,” and keep going!

This was the essence of it. Writing starts to become an internal process. Later one’s words can be clarified and reorganized, but first you have to hear yourself and learn to let your truth emerge.

OK, so suddenly there I am, sitting in a circle – yes, definitely a circle, we’re all equals – with a small group of 12-year-olds. We talk for a while, then, yeah, start writing! They go for ten minutes, then everyone reads his words aloud to the group.

How much difference, if any, did it make in their lives? I have no idea. And my daughter wasn’t part of the group (but eventually, over the years, overcame the “I hate writing” curse and became a poet) – but I know for sure that one participant in that group learned something of value. Me!

I learned that teaching flows in both directions. As a teacher, you can know that you’re accomplishing something if the students start becoming your teachers – which leads me to Jose and the dangling tennis shoes. We’d been talking about gang life, a reality for lots of Chicago public school students. Jose talked about the ritual of tossing someone’s shoes over a wire . . . if he’s shot, if he’s killed.

He wrote: “One of my friends he got stabbed with a pencil because he was in a gang, but now he isn’t in a gang because he doesn’t want his family to see his shoes dangling from a telephone wire. And he wants to go back and fix all the things he has done wrong and now he never wants to have a relation with a gang member. Now he is in my house to play video games.”

Since then, yeah, every now and then I’d see it . . . grief and shoelaces hovering above the city. Maybe the shoes had been tossed as a joke or a prank, not a memorial, but how could I know? All I know is that the city is not the same anymore – it’s more than bricks and lawns and sidewalks, traffic lights and convenience stores. It’s a mortal being, in quiet pain this very moment, as I walk home.

And it’s speaking to me, in a language I learned from a 12-year-old boy.