the things they carry (writing prompt included)

26 09 2009

every semester, the new freshmen at SUNYIT (like the freshmen in thousands upon thousands of composition classes all over the country) start off their academic paper-writing spree with a narrative in which they’re supposed to write descriptively about a moment during which something important happened to them. “important” is deliberately not emphasized in my classes as much as it might be in others’; i’m not asking them to bare their souls, but i am asking them to pick something to write about that was memorable enough for them to have a lot to say about it, so that they can give me 3-5 pages of good, rich detail describing some concise, finite happening (i tell them to pick something that took not more than about 5 minutes to happen, although they’re allowed to lead in with a reasonable amount of framing/backstory). put together, these essays are a revealing portrait of the things that stand out in the lives of these young people about whom my fellow teachers and i have been known to moan, exasperated about their inability to put things into perspective: “how could they? they have no perspective. nothing has ever happened to them.” in a sense, of course, that’s not true; amazing and terrible things have happened to at least a few of them, and plenty of okay and kinda-sucky things have happened to the rest of them, but it’s also underscored by lines like the one in C’s paper wherein he wrote, with no irony or sarcasm whatsoever, that he was “the most scared he had ever been in his entire life” when “walking,” one afternoon, from the safety of his bedroom desk-chair, into a particularly dangerous situation in a video game.

here’s a cross-section. i’m still missing a few papers due to various technological dysfunctions, so this isn’t quite all of this (light) term’s 53 students, but in overview, here’s what has happened to them, or at least what’s happened that’s memorable enough for them to write about and not too embarrassing to show the teacher: one dog bite, two dogs’ deaths, the first jellyfish sting on a perfect vacation, a cop-bicycle chase, 4 biking accidents (one involving an attack by a bat), 2 car accidents, one skiing accident, 2 boating accidents, a playing-tag-in-the-dark accident, a camp prank, 2 video game tournaments, 3 paintball games, a karate match, a football game, a ping-pong game, 2 baseball games and one baseball injury, a superglue-in-the-eye injury, a sibling rescue from a choking-on-a-plastic-toy incident, 2 pride-worthy art/engineering projects, two public speaking obligations, a graduation, a college-acceptance letter, a skydiving trip, a late limo to prom, a roller-coaster ride, a fire-department rescue for a head stuck in a chair (from the perspective of the rescuee), a fire-department rescue for the victims of a car accident (from the perspective of a rescuer), a missed plane, saying goodbye to a friend who’s moving away, a lexical misunderstanding during a study abroad, an academic breakthrough, and 3 hospital visits (one on a grandfather’s deathbed, one after a sibling’s drug overdose, and one to show off a prom dress to an ailing grandmother).

when you were eighteen, if you were asked to do the same assignment, before marriages and babies and many of the deaths adulthood brings us into contact with, before big promotions and layoffs and recessions and home ownership, before fellowships and dissertations and testing gadgets for NASA and joining the circus… what moment would you have picked? (or, if you remember doing this assignment–it tends to be pretty consistent–what did you pick? i remember reading my brother’s: he wrote about how our great-uncle charlie took us out firefly-catching in the front yard of his sprawling stone ranch house in east texas when we were little, and tried to fool us into chasing the light from his watch instead)

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22 responses

26 09 2009
donnickcottage

It’s good I never went to college. I would have been like landing on Mars. You’ve read, or at least I’m guessing you have, a few dozen of my moments. It’d be hard to pick. If I liked you and wanted you to think I was “special”, I spose I’d tell the one about my mother being dragged off to the nuthouse by the county sheriff on Christmas Eve. If I just wanted to satisfy the requirement, the one about walking in on a junkie friend of mine who was laying on the floor in rigor after having overdosed on smack I’d delivered to him. Or maybe, a story about being able to buy day old donuts for a nickel at 4 am before starting my paper route…. one or the other.

28 09 2009
tyra

i think i’d opt for the donuts, if you let me choose. not because i don’t care about your friend or if you’re special, but because part of this assignment is to play around a bit with figurative language, and doing that while presenting really serious topics can’t help but come off as flippant if not downright offensive. you can’t offend a donut (actually, i hear they prefer to be spelled with the “ugh”). 🙂

28 09 2009
donnickcottage

You can offend anything lass. Trust me, I have. Spelling fanatics for instance:) If there were a way to offend an inanimate object, I’d be right there.

30 09 2009
tyra

i’ll look for you first up against the wall in the doughnut revolution

30 09 2009
tyra

i’ll look for you first up against the wall in the doughnut revolution

28 09 2009
donnickcottage

You can offend anything lass. Trust me, I have. Spelling fanatics for instance:) If there were a way to offend an inanimate object, I’d be right there.

28 09 2009
tyra

i think i’d opt for the donuts, if you let me choose. not because i don’t care about your friend or if you’re special, but because part of this assignment is to play around a bit with figurative language, and doing that while presenting really serious topics can’t help but come off as flippant if not downright offensive. you can’t offend a donut (actually, i hear they prefer to be spelled with the “ugh”). 🙂

26 09 2009
donnickcottage

It’s good I never went to college. I would have been like landing on Mars. You’ve read, or at least I’m guessing you have, a few dozen of my moments. It’d be hard to pick. If I liked you and wanted you to think I was “special”, I spose I’d tell the one about my mother being dragged off to the nuthouse by the county sheriff on Christmas Eve. If I just wanted to satisfy the requirement, the one about walking in on a junkie friend of mine who was laying on the floor in rigor after having overdosed on smack I’d delivered to him. Or maybe, a story about being able to buy day old donuts for a nickel at 4 am before starting my paper route…. one or the other.

27 09 2009
pooh_gal

memorablia
Even when I was 18, if I had been asked, and I wasn’t, I would’ve written about learning to shell peas, and eating more than went into the bucket, and chewing the pods, and learning to love the garden.
It’s not that I didn’t have the other things, just that if asked to share, I would then and now choose to define my life in the positive learning moment over the scary moment.
My grandpa taught me to shell peas when we picked them from the garden he always grew in his urban home garden. The peas stand in a representative of the joy of digging in the dirt, and planting and tending and harvesting and composting and making the whole cycle of agricultural life happen in a small city-size house plot. And in this plot there was a giant cherry tree (Rainier, I think) that held the swing my grandpa built and my father pushed me in, and a prune tree, from which my grandpa canned prunes and from which I learned to love prunes, and a peach tree, which never did all that well, and an apple tree, and the neighbors over the fences had trees too, and they all knew each other and each other’s children and grandchildren, and no place was ever more home to me than my grandparents’ back yard, the and peas, the ever and always successful tomatoes and rhubarb and beans and onions and garlic and raspberries and of course lettuce and radishes and carrots and potatoes and cucumbers and squashes of several types and watermelon – and did I mention this was all in the small city size plot of land that was their home?
The two most important things that happened to me were my mother teaching me to read before I was 2, and my grandpa teaching me that a yard was a garden that fed us all year. Everything else was just me screwing up the life that those two lessons built for me.

28 09 2009
tyra

Re: memorablia
i want to go back in time and see it with you. 🙂

28 09 2009
tyra

Re: memorablia
i want to go back in time and see it with you. 🙂

27 09 2009
pooh_gal

memorablia
Even when I was 18, if I had been asked, and I wasn’t, I would’ve written about learning to shell peas, and eating more than went into the bucket, and chewing the pods, and learning to love the garden.
It’s not that I didn’t have the other things, just that if asked to share, I would then and now choose to define my life in the positive learning moment over the scary moment.
My grandpa taught me to shell peas when we picked them from the garden he always grew in his urban home garden. The peas stand in a representative of the joy of digging in the dirt, and planting and tending and harvesting and composting and making the whole cycle of agricultural life happen in a small city-size house plot. And in this plot there was a giant cherry tree (Rainier, I think) that held the swing my grandpa built and my father pushed me in, and a prune tree, from which my grandpa canned prunes and from which I learned to love prunes, and a peach tree, which never did all that well, and an apple tree, and the neighbors over the fences had trees too, and they all knew each other and each other’s children and grandchildren, and no place was ever more home to me than my grandparents’ back yard, the and peas, the ever and always successful tomatoes and rhubarb and beans and onions and garlic and raspberries and of course lettuce and radishes and carrots and potatoes and cucumbers and squashes of several types and watermelon – and did I mention this was all in the small city size plot of land that was their home?
The two most important things that happened to me were my mother teaching me to read before I was 2, and my grandpa teaching me that a yard was a garden that fed us all year. Everything else was just me screwing up the life that those two lessons built for me.

27 09 2009
metalmonkey

Over the wall
It was maybe a week before my asthma made itself known. At a night fire range, we lined up in full gear with M16s, four or five rows deep, just under the lip of a short wall. Over that wall was several hundred yards of sand, barbed wire, logs and concrete tubes, and three machine gun nests. Our exercise was to go up, over the wall, traverse the obstacles and react to illumination flares while the drills fired live machine gun ammunition over and around us, and detonated short sticks of dynamite planted throughout the field.
We were told matter-of-factly to do two basic things: follow your training (stop and aim when the flares went up) and not to stand or “you will be shot.”
The range’s lights went out and we squatted silently in the black, under the wall, in an short trench between the concrete and a large dirt embankment meant to stop rounds from flying too far.
Then the machine guns started, one at a time: popopopopop… Lead hit the embankment behyond our heads with a thup-thup sound, sending out small showers of hot dirt. The tracer rounds flew like hellish fireflies; red streaks that zipped over our heads and disappeared. There was muttering about “real bullets” that was silenced when the first explosion went off. WHOOOMP! Inside the short concrete tubes, they sounded like fireworks on the Fourth of July, but right next to your head. Flares went up like orange streetlights that were too afraid to stay on for more than a few seconds.
“First team up!” shouted somebody, and they lined up right against the wall. My “battle buddy” leaned against the concrete, and looked at me and I saluted in the dim. Someone shouted “GO GO GO” and up and over he went, “Second team up!”
As I leaned against the scratchy concrete, I could distinctly smell the mildew and lichen that was growing on it. Although it was a training exercise, I was somehow suddenly a little scared. My mind flashed forward and backward in time, and I saw all the walls soldiers had gone up and over. I felt suddenly connected to them, in my camouflage, gear and m16, and the guns and bombs died away. I saw what was, what would be; who killed and who died.
WHOOOMP! “GO GO GO!”
The explosion was from the closest tube, and I felt it through the wall. It rained dirt and rocks on our helmets. My next thought wasn’t words, but some mixture of “It is a good day to die,” and, “I’m coming home.” I stood up and rolled over the barrier, flopping on to wet sand on the other side.
I remember not thinking. Just moving from over logs and taking shelter behind one of the tubes just as an explosion went off. Clumps of still-smoking dirt landed on and around me. I got to a line of barbed wire, flipped on my back and crawled through a shallow bath of ice-cold muddy water, holding the rusting wire up with my rifle. A flare went up and I froze, half submerged.
In the seconds of light, I saw the whole course, upside-down. Ahead, I saw the three machine gun nests, manned by grinning DIs, sweeping fire back and forth. My eyes met the gunner’s in the center, one of my platoon’s drills, and he swept the weapon at me, lying on my back under a tangle of wire. I started moving again as the flare extinguished and thupthupthups in the sand kicked up around me.
I don’t remember the last dozen yards or so. Just crawling fast until I got past the nests, and then standing up and running to the little pole with the blue light that marked the end of the course.
Standing and observing the course from the other side, it looked much shorter than I recall traversing, but I felt like a different person than the one that went in, just minutes before.

28 09 2009
tyra

about that A…
i’d give you an A and i’d mark up a few of your lines, because i’m a perfectionist. some of us believe that cultivating writers means looking closely at both their forests and their trees.

28 09 2009
tyra

about that A…
i’d give you an A and i’d mark up a few of your lines, because i’m a perfectionist. some of us believe that cultivating writers means looking closely at both their forests and their trees.

27 09 2009
metalmonkey

Over the wall
It was maybe a week before my asthma made itself known. At a night fire range, we lined up in full gear with M16s, four or five rows deep, just under the lip of a short wall. Over that wall was several hundred yards of sand, barbed wire, logs and concrete tubes, and three machine gun nests. Our exercise was to go up, over the wall, traverse the obstacles and react to illumination flares while the drills fired live machine gun ammunition over and around us, and detonated short sticks of dynamite planted throughout the field.
We were told matter-of-factly to do two basic things: follow your training (stop and aim when the flares went up) and not to stand or “you will be shot.”
The range’s lights went out and we squatted silently in the black, under the wall, in an short trench between the concrete and a large dirt embankment meant to stop rounds from flying too far.
Then the machine guns started, one at a time: popopopopop… Lead hit the embankment behyond our heads with a thup-thup sound, sending out small showers of hot dirt. The tracer rounds flew like hellish fireflies; red streaks that zipped over our heads and disappeared. There was muttering about “real bullets” that was silenced when the first explosion went off. WHOOOMP! Inside the short concrete tubes, they sounded like fireworks on the Fourth of July, but right next to your head. Flares went up like orange streetlights that were too afraid to stay on for more than a few seconds.
“First team up!” shouted somebody, and they lined up right against the wall. My “battle buddy” leaned against the concrete, and looked at me and I saluted in the dim. Someone shouted “GO GO GO” and up and over he went, “Second team up!”
As I leaned against the scratchy concrete, I could distinctly smell the mildew and lichen that was growing on it. Although it was a training exercise, I was somehow suddenly a little scared. My mind flashed forward and backward in time, and I saw all the walls soldiers had gone up and over. I felt suddenly connected to them, in my camouflage, gear and m16, and the guns and bombs died away. I saw what was, what would be; who killed and who died.
WHOOOMP! “GO GO GO!”
The explosion was from the closest tube, and I felt it through the wall. It rained dirt and rocks on our helmets. My next thought wasn’t words, but some mixture of “It is a good day to die,” and, “I’m coming home.” I stood up and rolled over the barrier, flopping on to wet sand on the other side.
I remember not thinking. Just moving from over logs and taking shelter behind one of the tubes just as an explosion went off. Clumps of still-smoking dirt landed on and around me. I got to a line of barbed wire, flipped on my back and crawled through a shallow bath of ice-cold muddy water, holding the rusting wire up with my rifle. A flare went up and I froze, half submerged.
In the seconds of light, I saw the whole course, upside-down. Ahead, I saw the three machine gun nests, manned by grinning DIs, sweeping fire back and forth. My eyes met the gunner’s in the center, one of my platoon’s drills, and he swept the weapon at me, lying on my back under a tangle of wire. I started moving again as the flare extinguished and thupthupthups in the sand kicked up around me.
I don’t remember the last dozen yards or so. Just crawling fast until I got past the nests, and then standing up and running to the little pole with the blue light that marked the end of the course.
Standing and observing the course from the other side, it looked much shorter than I recall traversing, but I felt like a different person than the one that went in, just minutes before.

27 09 2009
reedrover

I don’t know which one I would eventually pick. By the time I had left high school, I’d had my first car accident. There was the absolute rush of opening night for “Fiddler on the Roof.” When I was 10, I got to see Old Faithful and the rest of the Yellowstone crew. Or the summer before that, there’s the time I broke my wrist by tripping on a bedspread. When I was four, I got myself trapped in an elevator in Italy because I was too short to push the buttons to go anywhere or open the door…

28 09 2009
tyra

oh, lord, fiddler. xander abbe on the roof… he was amazing. he was just my friend’s dorky boyfriend until that show opened, and then suddenly he was some kind of a god.

28 09 2009
tyra

oh, lord, fiddler. xander abbe on the roof… he was amazing. he was just my friend’s dorky boyfriend until that show opened, and then suddenly he was some kind of a god.

27 09 2009
reedrover

I don’t know which one I would eventually pick. By the time I had left high school, I’d had my first car accident. There was the absolute rush of opening night for “Fiddler on the Roof.” When I was 10, I got to see Old Faithful and the rest of the Yellowstone crew. Or the summer before that, there’s the time I broke my wrist by tripping on a bedspread. When I was four, I got myself trapped in an elevator in Italy because I was too short to push the buttons to go anywhere or open the door…

3 10 2009
ovrclokd

i’d write about failing out of the national spelling bee, at age 13, in the first round, on the word “madrigal.” which i know that i knew how to spell at the time – having a classical-music-radio DJ for a father has its advantages. did i mis-speak? did they mis-hear me? i still wish i had a way to know.

3 10 2009
ovrclokd

i’d write about failing out of the national spelling bee, at age 13, in the first round, on the word “madrigal.” which i know that i knew how to spell at the time – having a classical-music-radio DJ for a father has its advantages. did i mis-speak? did they mis-hear me? i still wish i had a way to know.

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