The View (2)

3 10 2011

The first unit in my writing class, like in many, culminates in my students writing narratives. The pedagogy behind this says that it’s easier to focus on the mechanical details when not also trying to grapple with notions of authorship and other people’s complex understandings of whatever they might opt to research, so we start with only one point of view–their own–and only one specific memory to recount. Having mastered the art of doing that coherently, the theory goes, it will be easier to apply what’s learned about coherence when taking on more challenging reading-and-representing tasks. This assumes, of course, that remembering and presenting a brief event is easy, and there’s all sorts of theory out there about why it’s not, but I don’t show my students that theory, so they don’t have the chance to over-think the task, which makes it end up seeming pretty simple. The challenge, I tell them every term, is not just to tell me what happened, but to show me what it looked, smelled, sounded, tasted, and felt like to be you, there on that day, in that place, living that five minutes of your life. Every semester, I get some stories I’ve read a hundred times already, because for a lot of these young, small-town central-new-yorkers, the time their [insert sport here] team beat the rival team of [insert nearby town’s name or mascot here] has been the highlight of their lives so far. And for a batch of others, of course, the most dramatic thing they can think of to describe was the time they nearly died, occasionally by an actual freak accident, but almost always because of something stupid they did when they were younger than the wise age of somewhere-around-18 where I encounter them.

This semester, I had a handful of soccer moments, some basketball moments, and a few football moments, most of them very well focused on a particular goal or point missed or scored. I also, to vary it a little, had two bowling tournament moments, a wrestling tournament moment, a shooting tournament moment, a first softball game moment, a volleyball tournament moment, and of course the races: a marathon, an 800-meter, and one unique entry from a Nordic cross country skier. The near-death experiences involved skiing a double-black-diamond course without a helmet, falling asleep at the wheel, crashing a snowmobile, having an allergic reaction to petting a mysterious caterpillar, being bitten on the head by a (provoked) dog, a fall through thin ice, and a last-minute surgical rescue from appendicitis. Lesser injury stories included a girl who burned her leg on her dad’s moped, a boy who dripped magnesium-flare all over his head when waving down rescue for a stranded fishing boat, an earring ripped out by a swing-set, a wrist broken by an ill-advised jump off of a Lego diving-board, and a little girl’s tongue stuck to the inside of the freezer to settle a bet with her sister.

There were three other fishing stories that didn’t include stranded boats (two involved catching bass locally, and one caught a “Moon Ray” in the Carolinas), a hunting story wherein nothing much was killed (my favorite kind) and one wherein many ducks were gathered, two (requisite every term) scary-roller-coaster stories, a grandmother’s funeral, a scary family drive over a flat bridge in Jamaica, a fly-ball caught on a first visit to a professional baseball game, a first day in an American high school, a first job, a first vocal performance, two robotics competitions, an idyllic walk in the falling snow, two romantic meetings (one penned by a young writer of each gender), a visit to an Italian volcano, bungee-jumping in New Zealand, a back-stage pass to meet Linkin Park, being landed on by a pigeon in London, a backstage pre-show whirlwind in a high school drama club, a visit to the Vatican, a fender-bender, a moral victory in sharing credit where it wasn’t due in an academic competition, a physical victory over a daunting set of monkey bars in first grade, a first time “mudding” in someone’s back 40, two first airplane flights, and my favorite of the year: a fourteen-year-old following-Daddy’s-footsteps new recruit’s first call from the firehouse.

Between the venturers to North Carolina, New Zealand, London, Jamaica, the two students who wrote about coming to the US from somewhere else (Jamaica and Korea), and the two different trips to Italy, it was a good semester for travelers. It was also a good semester for the local kids to show their local color: the small-town sports teams, the huntin’-and-fishin’ crowd (overlapping with the big, muddy truck kid), and the snow-watching, snow-skiing, and snow-and-ice-crashing hardy young-folks-of-the-north have made a proud showing. But the disturbing story of the year award goes to my twin-towers-attack eye-witness, who was 8 years old and had the dubious privilege of watching the entire scene unfold through the window of his 3rd grade classroom.

It’s not disturbing in terms of being creepy or problematic: it was a well-written descriptive narrative that placed the narrator very realistically in the thought-processes of an 8-year-old boy. That looks like an action movie happening out there, or a video game, but holy crap it isn’t; why is the teacher crying, and why are all the parents more scared than the kids are? It’s surprising, really, considering how many students my school pulls in from the City, that this is the first 9-11 story I’ve had. What’s disturbing about it is how it flips the experience and moves the camera lens. I saw what happened like most of the world did: on TV, the same shots over and over, until I could call them up at will in instant-inner replay. I was an adult with nobody I knew endangered; I was responsible to only myself, and I was far, far away. Now I have new images, from a much differently positioned set of eyes, and it looks different from the point of view of a little boy hanging on the windowsill to try to see, being barked away from the window by a young teacher who was wrestling with her own fears while knowing she was responsible for the safety of 20-some suddenly-all-talking-at-once little people. And of course I have to imagine, now, being one of the parents, too, thinking their kids were safe at school on any normal day, never guessing what visuals would be about to accompany the lesson of the day.

back porch early fall

Looking out onto the upstairs back porch from the guest room: square and star and leaf and crescent

It’s just a window, and one scene unfolding outside of it. In the picture, there’s nothing outside mine but a wind-chime (a Christmas present from my grad school friend whose dad worked on one of the non-exploded sides of the Pentagon) and a few unmoving maples, on a quiet day in early fall. These maples were shorter then, but probably not enough to notice, ten years past; the scene from this window, minus the little trappings of our decor, probably looked exactly the same while L was looking out of a window he’d looked out a hundred times in the first few weeks of school already, one he said was indistinguishable from the view in and outside of the room from the year before. But his view, this time, while the maples that are ours now hung still over someone else’s yard, was of the world changing.

listening to: Dragonette, “Pick up the Phone”


Yeah, we started the fire
And it’s burning up
Everything around us
Take a photograph
Cuz if they ever found us
They’d have us surrounded,
So you know you’ve gotta pick up

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