In the course of my first year of teaching it occurred to me that all of these wonderful things the kids were learning about stories ought to be put to use, and I made them write their own short stories. It was an experiment I haven’t tried again, as such–I definitely think it a worthy endeavor, but the outcome left rather a lot to be desired. The naivete of the teacher allowed some references into certain stories (which were subsequently read aloud to the class) that should never have been mentioned in a well-regulated classroom. I did, however, gain some absolute gems from their brains.
One story had the protagonist in a bit of a slimy situation. As the student wrote, “I needed to get back to my palace, so I made like a banana and spitted.” I found the attempted use of a pun very admirable, but the actual wording made me wonder any number of things. For instance, did the banana impale itself on a spit? How would that help one get back to their palace? What does roast banana taste like anyway?
Another story involved trying to save a prized pet peacock from certain death by some illness or another. It was very touch-and-go for a while, as I recall. In fact, after the owner finally gets the right medication for his bird, he gets home only to find that “his peacock was lying on the flour.” The class was relieved to learn that he was in the nick of time to save the poor peacock. I just figured it was indicating its preferred method of cremation: breaded and fried. After all, a meal is usually involved in a memorial; I guess usually the deceased isn’t the one consumed, though. Seeing as how the bird didn’t die, I suppose this is one moral dilemma we are saved from having to resolve.
Each of the stories that didn’t involve something illicit or inappropriate was filled with tension and angst–I do work with teenagers. One student, trying to emphasize how worried she (or her protagonist) felt at a point of high tension in her story wrote, “her hart was pounding.” Oh goodness. My husband briefly owned a pet deer when he (and the deer) were very young, but I don’t know many people who have their very own hart (whether it pounds or not). That’s even more exotic than owning a peacock. But what, dear reader, was the hart pounding? That shall have to be another question for the ages; the author never revealed that answer.
Occasionally we all wish we could have do-overs. Mistakes are made, problems created and weathered. Afterward, we look back with clarity and wish we could have done it differently. We always have the choice, at these times, to either learn from the experience, or to brush it off and continue on our oblivious way. The occasions when I have continued obliviously have generally become larger learning experiences later in life.
Those times, however, both in and out of the classroom, where something happens and I immediately wish I had acted or reacted differently, have taught me that I must live with my choices.
It is part of the human condition, really. We make mistakes, we wish we could change history. we wish we could play a part in history. That is what causes the drive for fame, for leadership, for discovery. Some of those ends are more pure than others, but the motivation is the same: we want to make our mark on the world and be remembered. We want to make a difference. To that end, some people have tried to change history. World leaders have had a huge impact–some negative and others positive. Some who changed the world negatively perhaps looked back later and wished they had done things differently; perhaps they did not. Some have had negative impacts while trying to make the world better.
No one, however, impacts history as much as students when they try to tell us what happened. I’m sure some of you have seen the list of what are actually studentisms turned in on history essays and exams, with all sorts of interesting interpretations of history. If you haven’t, here is a version of it. I know there are others, but that should keep you going for a few minutes at least. None of those, I argue, impact our history quite as much as this: “What had happened so far in history is that Ethan died of a burst appendix.”
I suppose it’s good of my student to report history as he or she understands it, but really? All that has happened so far in history is that Ethan (whoever he is) died of a burst appendix? In all probability, this was a book report, but I don’t recall. The statement is just so all-encompassing, and obliterating. Forget about the renaissance. Don’t worry about the stone age, or the dark ages. The reformation? Pfft. More recent history? Only important thing there is we figured out what an appendix is, so that Ethan could die from one bursting. Was it his appendix, or someone else’s? With such an incomplete history presented to us, I guess that is the new mystery of the ages.
“The first time I heard that sixflags was an adventure park I thought that it wasn’t going to be exited.” Well goodness. There are enough things wrong with that sentence I’m not sure where I should start. Capitalization of proper nouns? Content? Spelling? Pronoun-verb agreement? Some of that is boring (though necessary). The rest is what moves it from the realm of badly-written sentence to studentism.
Specifically, I am focusing on “it wasn’t going to be exited.” I know this student meant to write that it wasn’t going to be exciting. Really, now? First off, what high school freshman, writing near the beginning of the school year, is already so bored with life that their end-of-middle-school trip to Six Flags isn’t going to be exciting? What have they done in their life? Seriously? Mayhap this is why I have such trouble keeping their attention in the classroom.
But the real issue is this: The amusement park “wasn’t […] to be exited.” Holy Shades of Halloween Horror Specials, Batman! The amusement park that you can’t leave. Do they keep packing more and more people through the front gates like commuters onto a Japanese Bullet Train? Sorry. That was probably a misinformed generalisation, but it served its purpose. Or perhaps it is such a labyrinthine mess that once you’re in, you’ll never find your way out, despite pebbles, breadcrumbs, or golden threads. You’ll just be there, forever, until your teeth rot from amusement park food–or conversely, you starve to death because you can’t afford the outrageously expensive food any longer and there’s no way to make more money where you are.
Goodness. The scenario is getting worse by the moment. Do students know what they do to their poor teachers? All of these thoughts from an error-ridden sentence. Had I known even one teacher went places like this in their head from student writing, I would have ensured they had more to play with. Maybe that’s just me. Anyone else?
The persuasive essay is an interesting conundrum. I appreciate the idea that we ought to teach people methods of persuasion, and that they need to know how to judge an argument’s reliability. I even have simplified methods of helping students distinguish between pathos, ethos, and logos arguments. Then I try to convince them of the efficacy of a good counterargument, and finally they choose their topic to write an essay. Of course an essay! Without them, I wouldn’t have as much great material to write about. However, the essays in English class always seem so contrived. “Choose a controversial topic and write an essay arguing one side. Do not choose [terrible topic a, b, or c].”
But Miss BB, I can write about that! It will be good, I promise.
It never is. All of their arguments are emotional, or so misinformed it makes a teacher want to weep. It’s not my favorite essay to teach, but it does provide some excellent studentisms.
I chose to write about this particular studentism today because it seems timely. There will, I think, always be a number of things that are political hot-button issues; guns will probably remain on that list for some time. I have read quite a few essays touting the need for gun control, and quite a few arguing that guns are good to have around. As with any good persuasive argument, there must be a variety of reasons supporting the thesis. This student supports the argument that guns are good with a particularly convincing argument: “Guns are necessary because they are for self defense against strange people.”
What an interesting concept. We should defend ourselves against strange people. It does beg a question or two. Thousand. I’m not sure any of the questions actually have answers. Indeed, I’m uncertain I should speculate too deeply on that one; I might come to some socially or morally incorrect conclusions.
So what does a teacher do when faced with such a statement? It really depends on her mood. In this case, I laughed and added it to my studentism list. Should I have tried to correct the student? Probably, but there is that irrefutable logic inherent in the statement, and I just couldn’t bring myself to correct it with a straight face. Does that make me one of the strange people against whom we should all be defended?
Everyone gets nervous from time to time. Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is famous for her nerves, ostensibly brought on by having five daughters to marry off and not enough fortune to make them desirable to prospective husbands. Some have speculated that her nerves came from having a husband who was far her intellectual superior (and her social superior as well) decide she wasn’t much worth his time after all. The poor woman had to do something to get his attention.
In any case, Mrs. Bennet is not the only person to ever have a nervous complaint, and as I said, everyone has had a case of nerves once or twice. I tell my students that I am nervous the first day of school, meeting a whole crop of new people, hoping that I’ve improved my skills enough that I can properly teach them, wondering if this is the class that is going to realise that they outnumber me and I can’t really do anything to stop them if they decide to mutiny. Well…I don’t tell them that last part. I do assure them of my nerves and genuine shyness when I introduce to them their first oral assignment. Of course, when I go all actor-dramatic on them to get their attention during Shakespeare, and play four roles at once, including a weeping, distraught Romeo, some of them accuse me of not being shy at all. I look at them in feigned bewilderment and reply, “That’s not shyness. That’s acting.” Then we continue our discussion of Romeo’s extreme emo-ness. He was probably nervous too.
However, I have never seen or read of anyone so nervous as one of my students apparently was. My students write autobiographically from time to time, and one student confided in an essay, “I was so nervous, it felt like my heart would fall out of my butt.” Now my friends, that is nervous. It’s also a marvelous example of original figurative language gone horribly graphic. At least they didn’t use a cliché. I love when students use their imaginations to come up with something glorious. Though this student may need a little refinement as time goes by, I am thrilled by the potential.
So here’s an interesting thing. Interesting to me, anyhow. Browsing around, I found a blog (click the pretty link) that challenged me to write using one each of randomly selected genre, setting, conflict, item, and theme. Sure. I’m up for it. I haven’t managed to write anything story-like in a while, and it may entertain a few people. So without much more ado, I present my little entry.
Don’t Look Back
(A Flash Fiction fulfilling the following: Space Opera, The Rainforest, Temptation vs. Virtue!, A Treasure Map, and Chaos Always Trumps Order in 2000 (or fewer!) words)
“Dammit Jim! I’m a doctor, not a tailor,” I muttered, channeling an ancient trope whose origins had been lost. I was staring at the gaping hole in the captain’s trousers, torn by the razor-sharp vine wending around the tree we had just passed. It wasn’t supposed to happen. We were wearing the latest in survival gear. As advertised, it would regulate body temperature, take care of euphemistic issues (that part actually worked better than one would assume), and was both stain-resistant and indestructible. We had just proven the last part wrong. Of course, when on an unsettled planet entirely covered in either ocean or rainforest, most bets were off anyway.
I shrugged off the pack I was wearing and pulled out the med kit. Tweezers and a specimen jar came out first; I had to remove the spines the vine had left in Noella’s leg. Given the streaks of red radiating from each puncture, I wanted to analyze the spines to synthesize an antidote. In the meantime, a dose of healall and a spray of local anesthetic took care of the pain while I removed the spines and cleaned up the wound. “I can’t do anything about your pants,” I said. “We’d better hope nothing else tries to attack. Can you walk?”
A scowl and a curse were my answer as Noella gritted her teeth and pushed herself upright. I handed her a stick to lean on. “Let’s go,” she said.
“Lead on.” I didn’t know where we were going anyway. We had ejected from the ship just before it blew up in orbit. The escape pod was hopelessly ruined behind us, and we had salvaged what we could. We knew that we had to get away from any trace of our inauspicious entrance to this world. The pirates were after us.
The captain consulted her book. “This way… I think,” she said, and winced as she began walking, stick in one hand and vibro-machete in the other, looking warily for any more plants or animals that might attack.
“Don’t use that thing,” I warned. “It’ll leave a trail.” Then I asked the question that had been pulsing for several days. “What’s in the book anyway?” It was a valid question, since most books had long since been replaced with electronic versions of the texts. She sheathed her machete and sighed. After several breaths of silence, she pulled the book from her pocket and handed it to me. I examined the cover before leafing through the pages and then looking up incredulously. “A treasure map? Are we even on the right planet?” I glanced at the uncharted forest surrounding us and shook my head. “I thought you said this was a mission of mercy. That’s why you needed a doctor.”
“It is mercy,” she said harshly. “It will be mercy for me, when I get that treasure. And mercy for the captives in the bowels of that pirate ship. And I need you to keep us all healthy.”
“Okay,” I agreed, studying the map. “How did you figure out it was this planet? And how are we going to get off of this ball of dirt?”
“We don’t need to get into that right now. We need to keep moving,” she instructed. Well, she was the captain. We kept moving. I kept the map and used it to try to figure out where to go. It wasn’t easy. We wandered for another day before we finally found a landmark. That helped, but by then Noella’s leg had gotten worse, and I wasn’t sure I could fix it. She kept pushing us onward, though. She had become obsessed with finding the treasure. I wasn’t even sure about the pirates anymore. There wasn’t a sign of them following, but the captain insisted they were above, monitoring our progress. “They’ll swoop in at the last minute, after we’ve done all the hard work.”
I analyzed more specimens from the rainforest to see if they were edible, and handed her half a piece of purple, gooey fruit. It smelled like bleu cheese, but probably wouldn’t kill us, and we were running low on supplies. That cheesefruit made the trip so much more enjoyable. It had a mild hallucinogenic effect, and actually made the map easier to read. Noella’s leg didn’t hurt any more, and we hurried giddily past landmark after landmark.
Until we fell into the pit. It wasn’t that far, but it was deep enough I couldn’t climb out easily, and Noella’s already weakened leg broke. Then the hallucinations became real. It started with the voices.
“Come this way.”
“Look over here.”
“I have it.”
“Give it to me.”
They fought as they swirled around us. Then we began to feel the violence of their passage. Soon, we began to see them. Humanoid, but with skin to blend and coordinate with the surrounding rainforest: greens, blues, purples, reds. It was a cacophony of color and sound. In short order, they had us trussed and carried out of the pit, ignoring the agonized moans of my poor captain. Our packs were opened and riffled. The book was confiscated to great ululations of joy from our captors. We exchanged looks of confusion and fear as they carried us, leaping faster and faster from rock to branch to treetop and back down again.
By the time we arrived at our destination, our indestructible clothing was destroyed and we were bleeding. Surrounding us were our jewel-toned captors, dancing in frenzy. The drums became so overpowering I felt my heart begin to race in time with the beats. The book was tossed from hand to hand, person to person in seeming randomness until it was thrown high into the air and the pages scattered like spring blossoms.
“No,” whispered Noella, head slumping forward. She closed her eyes, but I kept watching.
The pages began to disappear, zapped by a laser from an unseen source. Our captors’ screams changed tone and the drums petered out. Any pages still left blew aside as the pirate’s cutter descended. Helpless to intervene (and not certain for whom I would), I kept watching.
In a battle of technology vs. primitive, who wins?
The primitive, of course. It went back and forth for a time, but the infernal vines were lucid. They went kamikaze on the cutter, and before long it was as hopeless as our doomed escape pod. The pirates were stuck on this planet with Noella, a bunch of raving concrete hallucinations, and me.
The captain didn’t last long. After the possibility of finding the treasure and getting off-planet disappeared, she lost her will to survive. The pirates? Well, after I cut them out of the vines three or four times, I gave up on them. The vines were there to protect the hallucinations, and who was I to stop them? Besides, I learned what the treasure was. And the chance to turn my favorite shade of blue, live forever, and dance like a dervish was way more tempting than trying to save my fellow man. I went native and never looked back.