Teacher embraces writing to ‘freak out less’

By CULLAN STAACK/Montana State News 

Walking the famous John Muir Trail in the fantastic Sierra Nevada mountain range, Mark Schlenz cannot help but consider the beauty of it all. “I like to write about nature and ecology and try to put things in terms that can influence people to have more positive values towards preserving stuff like this,” he says.

Schelnz’s book on the hike, “Walk the Sky: Following the John Muir Trail” is a microcosm of his beliefs about the world as well as his life story: chill out more and freak out less.

“Chill out! Keep writing! Write more, freak out less,” Schelnz says, while laughing at the thought of telling his younger self these words of advice, albeit with a hint of seriousness. “And you know what they say, ‘what goes around comes around,’ and to know it keeps going around and it keeps coming around.”

Despite his love of beautiful nature hikes, playing a variety of string instruments, Chinese martial arts and yoga, as well as writing music and about anything that comes to his mind, Schlenz, who has a doctoral degree in English, carries an unmistakable sense of urgency and motivation. As a conscientious objector and a firm Donald Trump critic, Schelnz is driven to use his vast knowledge of writing and discourse to teach a younger generation the right way to communicate and learn from each other.

“I think that now is the time for me to do the absolute best work I can,” he says. “I think that the world we face today shows us the consequences of inadequate education for critical thinking, clear and sincere speech, and civil society.”

Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Schelnz was exposed to the chaos of the Vietnam War and the draft that preceded it. Becoming a conscientious objector was a deeply personal choice, which originated from his perceived unfairness regarding the draft age of young men arriving before the required age of the right to vote in America.

Schelnz, seemingly still shocked about the absurdity, says, “I grew up in a country that did not allow me to vote, but could at any moment order me to leave my life and go kill people. And people would say, ‘Where was that?’ And I would say, ‘The United States of America.’”

Before becoming a writing teacher at Montana State University, Schelnz was a high school English teacher, for which he professes fond memories.

“Teaching high school English was just amazing,” he says. More than loving the occupation itself, Mark leans on the lessons he learned from high school students and on how much our democratic society depends on proper education and teaching. The lack of critical thinking ability from his students and observing how little the education system enforces such an important skill really resonated with him.

Schelnz explains: “It showed me how distant critical thinking and clear expression is for most people and how essential it is to our democracy. Those insights as a teacher, I think, have really informed and inspired the projects I work on as a writer, but also they’ve really gotten me very involved in English education and writing, teaching, and doing research at the university level.”

Objecting to the draft was not a stance looked favorably upon by the government during the Vietnam War. Recalling his fearful appeals meeting with federal agents attempting to prove him a fraud, Schelnz’s choice to object from the draft was met with scrutiny from every skeptic.

“The outcome of the grilling was whether or not I would go to war and kill or be killed,” he says. Only an 18-year-old young man just graduated from high school, Mark was tasked with staring down 18 men in business suits, all over the age of fifty, heckling him about an essay he’d written about non-violence meant to prove him being a conscientious objector.

The protocol for dealing with the second-guessing and non-believers during this time, he explains, was to write. People claiming to be conscientious objectors had to write statements, appeals, forms, letters, both from yourself and for you from other people, and in general show the government that you had a history of having believed in the philosophy.

He explains: “To actually write, point by point, to the law was how I argued that I qualified for this status of non-violence conscientious objection. It was hard work!”

After some early career success involving an innovative theory and producing an academic textbook on writing, Schelnz switched lanes and became a professional writer and started a publishing company in Bozeman after getting caught up in politics. Eventually circling back to teaching, Schelnz found the university’s commitment to a writing program lacking.

“It looked like it wasn’t ever going to happen,” he says, referring to the creation of a writing program at MSU. “I was one of the initial people here to teach the classes, and I taught many, five or six, of the core classes of the major.”

Despite only being classified as an adjunct professor, Schlenz was one of the original contributors to the current writing program, helping to elevate it to heightened levels of viability for interested students, all the while showing his grassroots commitment to the discipline and to teaching students how to be better writers as well as thoughtful citizens.\

In order to deal with the pressures and realism of his time, Schelnz enjoyed writing songs and poems, not just to support his beliefs, but also to cultivate a creative zone where he could escape for periods of time.

He says: “At that time in the 60s and 70s, you could really see how a song or a poem could really change people and even society, if not history.” Passion and technique, for both writing and musical predisposition, allowed him a method to voice his strong opinions about the war and about government intervention, and to even open people’s minds about what he believed to be cons decades ago and even today.

Going so far as to say songs and poems were the greatest influences on his writing career, Schelnz attributes his affinity for artful writing to being the reason he was able to rise above the struggles and issues facing him as he grew into the person he is today.

“Everyone loves to hate an English teacher!” Schelnz admits, despite his seemingly supreme confidence in himself and his beliefs, that being a writing teacher sometimes had its doubts. People who generally disregard his expertise on writing and being a rhetorician dog him, but Schelnz keeps his spirits high knowing that the opinion is mostly based on ignorance.

Comparing using common English to the simple act of walking, Schelnz says, “It’s like trying to be an expert and someone who could really help people with walking. Nobody would say, ‘Well there’s nothing wrong with my walking! It gets me from place to place.’”

The metaphor of teaching walking as compared to teaching writing symbolizes Schelnz’s eternal battle with complacency and the status quo, both of which he is actively trying to beat.

A non-violent, conscientious objecting writing teacher does not appear at first glance to be a sophisticated person worthy of profound respect. Schlenz is another case entirely. From successfully objecting from the Vietnam War draft, helping to implement and grow an entire writing program at a major university, and mastering the rugged John Muir Trail, not to mention publishing a litany of works, he has left his fingerprints on our society in more ways than one.

Perhaps his most impactful contribution, however, has been his devotion to writing students and developing the necessary skills in them to be powerful individuals in a controlling and hostile world.

“That’s really kind of what writing has always been for me, when as an individual I feel a real urge to engage humanity in its historic quest for something better than what it is. I would start writing.”

– edited by Jordan Sparr

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