Stand and deliver
As my hand reached for the door, my heart started beating faster. Even though I have taught public speaking at the University of Southern Maine for 13 years and have conducted countless writing workshops and seminars, I was facing my greatest classroom challenge ever: I was about to teach essay writing to six students – six 12-year-old boys, to be precise. And I was scared witless.
It’s not that I wasn’t prepared. I had given careful thought to my month-long curriculum – a variation on my workshop theme. In the first meeting, I would make them sit and listen to me lecture about the magic of the first-person singular for two hours. During the second meeting, I would talk about sensory imagery and the power of description, and then give them a writing assignment for next time. At that meeting, we would read the essays aloud and workshop/critique them. They would then revise them for the final meeting, in which we would read the new and improved essays and congratulate each other on how smart we all are. Pretty simple.
No, I was scared because I didn’t know how old 12 years old was. I have one nephew who is seven and two nephews who are in their 20s. I have a protégé whom I started hanging out with when he was a young teen, but at that stage we basically spent most of our time trying not to make eye contact with each other. I have friends with kids who are or who have been this age – in fact, that was why I was teaching this class; my friend Ann’s son, Joe, is a student at the school – but my interaction was limited: a quick pinch on the cheek, a startled “My, how’ve you’ve grown,” and then Auntie was off to the beer cooler. I just don’t do kids.
But the first thing that struck me as I surveyed my class on that morning was that twelve-year-old boys aren’t scary; they’re just sort of funny-looking – albeit in an I’m-growing-into-my-looks, sweet sort of way. It’s almost as though you can hear their bones cracking and see their faces morphing, à la the Incredible Hulk, right before your eyes. At least one of their features – nose, lips, teeth – seems to have gotten a head start on the rest of the face and is waiting for its counterparts to catch up. Because of this, I felt an instant affinity. I went through a similar awkward, homely stretch that started at about age four and endured into my early 30s, while I waited for some sign of bone structure to emerge from my chipmunk cheeks and the rest of my body to align itself with my – let’s say generous – mouth. I went through most of my young life looking like a pair of lips on legs.
The second thing that struck me was how direly important it can suddenly become to win the approval of six young lads. So, I let out all the stops. I swooped, I windmilled, I blustered, I used a liberal smattering of the words “poop” and “underpants.” I imagined the boys asking themselves, “Who is this crazy teacher dressed all in black flying around the classroom like a bat? What are all those piles of books about? Do we have to read them? Why is she so loud? Is she going to shove us in an oven at lunchtime?”
To help explain the difference between first-person fiction and the personal essay, I read the opening sentences of Robinson Crusoe, Great Expectations andThe Catcher in the Rye. As I did, I asked my young charges if they had ever heard of any of these books or their authors. When I got to the Salinger, one student raised his hand and said, “My brother is in high school and he’s read me parts of that.” There was a pause. “That book’s not appropriate.”
“Oh my God,” my head screamed. “Of course it’s not. What was I thinking? Are these guys going to rat on me? What else did I bring? Oh no, hide the Sedaris!” (I had with me a copy of David Sedaris’ Naked because there is a picture of underpants on the cover.) But I kept my cool and simply replied that the book was, indeed, inappropriate, but there was nothing the matter with the first sentence I had read, which was all they were going to get. (Phew.)
From there, we went on to discuss the difference between fiction and non-fiction, which lead to a discussion of what “truth” is. (I would have changed the topic to something simpler – say, the ineluctable modality of the visible, but I had failed to bring along my copy of Ulysses.) I read them an essay by my favorite author – me – the first half of which describes skating at Deering Oaks. The second half depicts the author in a less-than-flattering light, when she makes some snarky remarks about a certain skater’s “unfortunate” clothing choices. I then asked my class whether, had I omitted the part about my opinion of the skater’s clothes, I would have been telling the truth.
“No,” said Seth, the lead hand-raiser of the group.
“Why not?” I challenged, to which he replied I had left out an important part. “Yes,” I countered, “but I didn’t tell you who I was skating with or what I had in my pockets or what the sky looked like. You can’t tell the reader everything.” I crossed my arms. I may have smirked.
While I was basking in the enjoyment of besting a 12-year-old, Nicholas, after some thought, offered, “Yes, but without the part about the skater, it wouldn’t be the best truth.” And then Kobi added, “So, I get it. If you leave something out, then it can still be true. But if you add something, it’s not.”
There is really nothing to ruin a good gloat like being upstaged and outsmarted by two 12-year-olds. Honestly, in all my years of teaching and writing and thinking about writing and thinking about teaching writing, I have never heard two more succinct, back-to-back, on-the-mark insights.
There was only one thing to do. They had mentioned earlier that they had been on a field trip to a sewage-treatment plant. “So, you got to look at poop?” I said, punching my Ps. I made them tell me about it. I had them back. I left the class feeling like I was floating on air. “My people,” I cooed. “I have found my people.”
Of course, at our next meeting, I discovered the actual truth about 12-year-old boys: What they really love is novelty. By the second class, I was already last year’s Game Boy, a cast-aside Power Ranger, an old used sock. Two of the students no-showed. (Oh, I guess you say “were absent” in middle school.) My swooping was not so captivating. There were many, many bathroom breaks. My jokes sounded tinny. I was trying too hard.
We resumed our lovefest, though, when we got down to reading and working with the essays. Eli made us feel the degradation of being treated like a baby by his fifth grade teacher. Joe cracked us up with his tale of a penguin boy just looking for a little deserved recognition. We were all chased by the “Noodle of Death” with Austin at his summer camp. And there was nary a bathroom break.
With the final essay read and the class over, I watched my boys fly from their seats – freedom! – and out to romp in the thin winter sun. As I saw them scatter, I had but one thought: “Goodbye, you princes of Maine. You kings of New England – and thanks for the writing lesson.”
Elizabeth Peavey’s column, which has been on a mini-siesta, will now appear once a month.