It was the day after Halloween when my classes read David Sedaris’s narrative essay “Us and Them.”
You know how when you’re young, everyone else seems weird because they do things differently than your family? Before the students started the story, I proposed the question written by the textbook company:
What is normal?
My seniors talked within table groups and then shared out with the whole class. Several people said something along the lines of “Being normal means not being weird.” Often in school settings, when one student has an opinion, others will jump on the bandwagon rather than form their own.
I can’t stop thinking about the girl who said:
“There’s no such thing as normal because everyone is different. So being different is normal.
Sedaris’s third-grade self spies on his neighbors, the Tomkeys, and he passes juvenile judgement on their lives. The Tomkeys don’t watch TV. They talk during meals. They even slap their knees laughing at each other. They trick-or-treat in homemade costumes. On the wrong day. The day after Halloween.
At the insistence of his mother and with dramatized reluctance, Sedaris must give away his own, hard-earned Halloween candy. Along the way, he pokes fun at himself for being human, judgmental and greedy.
And I’m still thinking about what it means to be normal.
Due to inclement weather for an outdoor event nearby, Wynton Marsalis showed up at my school, where his gig had been relocated. This happened on Tuesday at 11 am, and I just happened to have a coinciding off period, so I took two flights of stairs down to the balcony of The Denney Theatre. With an introduction from Houston mayor Sylvester Turner, Marsalis spoke about the fundamentals of jazz and how jazz teaches us to exercise individual rights as well as responsibility to others. “Jazz can show us how to work together,” he said, “while also celebrating our obvious differences.” The metaphors weren’t lost on this English teacher. Marsalis spoke of improvisation and how improvisation is freedom. Then he improvised on trumpet with The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and proceeded to blow my socks off. There was a call and response among the musicians. The piano and sax, the drums and string bass and trombone each had their turn. I understood the celebration of differences and left the theatre that day feeling that jazz is life.
This whole jazz experience overlapped with classroom discussion of James Baldwin’s 1957 short story “Sonny’s Blues.” I had never taught this story. I’m not sure I fully understood the nuance. I had hesitated to assign the story. It’s not exactly short. But there’s something about Baldwin. And I couldn’t have planned a guest performance of a Grammy and Pulitzer Prize winning jazz musician if I had tried.
Prior to the reading assignment, I gave my students a bookmark, ironic since The Norton Introduction to Literature is online. The bookmark, a mini-handout, included what to look for when marking the text:
Music and Jazz
Being Trapped, Physically and Emotionally
Light vs. Darkness
Grace, Forgiveness, and Salvation
Characterization of the Narrator vs. Sonny
Then came Wednesday, the day of the graded discussion. I had divided the story into three parts and my class alphabetically into three groups. My students read the entire story but focused their annotations on their assigned section: beginning, middle, or end.
The students first discussed their chunk in small groups for main ideas and motifs. Then we had a class graded discussion. Everyone participated. Intelligent and sophisticated conversation ensued. In twenty-two years of teaching, what happened in my classroom this week ranks as a highlight of highlights and left me inspired.
Sonny is a free-spirited jazz musician with a heroin problem. It’s 1950s Harlem. His older brother, the unnamed narrator, teaches school and has spent time in the military. The brotherly conflict is real. Before their mother dies, she tells the older brother, “Don’t let him fall.” It seems wrong to write a story about the artist James Baldwin or his masterpiece of a story. You would be better off reading “Sonny’s Blues,” and then we can talk.
“They sat there in the fresh young darkness close together. Pheoby eager to feel and do through Janie, but hating to show her zest for fear it might be thought mere curiosity. Janie full of that oldest human longing—self revelation” (Their Eyes Were Watching God, page 7).
I can’t stop thinking about Zora Neale Hurston’s words. Self-revelation. The oldest human longing. At the beginning of the novel, Janie returns home after a year-and-a-half absence. Pheoby wants to live vicariously through her friend, but she doesn’t want to come across as nosy. Janie wants nothing more than to tell her story. The rest of the novel is that story.
And that’s friendship—telling our stories, sharing our burdens, gaining self-awareness and insight through processing. But what about blogging? I suppose self-revelation, regardless of form, comes from a longing to connect.
I wrestle with what to share on the blog…with oversharing…crossing boundaries…telling stories that might not be mine to tell. I’m sure I could pick up the phone and share more with my friends and family. Then there’s the part about being an introvert and exhausted at the end of my days and weeks and recharging my energy through my quiet time. And there’s the part about not knowing what to say until the words appear on the page. I often find answers inside my heart all along.
As I re-read Their Eyes Were Watching God, I’m contemplating more this time through Janie’s journey and self-discovery.
I don’t know how many people have jobs with built-in opportunities for do-overs. I teach school, therefore, this past Monday was a new beginning for me—in so many ways.
On my first day of school, I opted for the stairs vs. the elevator, from the lower level of the parking garage to my fourth-floor classroom. 71 steps from the garage to the second floor, 98 to the third floor, 125 to the fourth floor. But who’s counting?
One thing I’ve noticed about my co-workers who take the stairs—they’re fit. What if the stairs are their not-so-secret secret? Game on, Stairs. Game on.
Students at the performing and visual arts high school started the day in their art areas—theater, dance, instrumental, vocal, creative writing, or visual arts. Academic teachers, like me, joined one of the art areas for crowd control, so I went to the theater department. Theater, however, had everything under control, so I simply stood by in awe.
The senior thespians, thirty or so, stood center stage, one by one, in the Black Box Theater. Each offered their advice to the underclassmen, and their words were sheer power. “Be kind and easy to work with. It will open doors for you.” And so many more I can’t recount, but what I heard set the tone for my day.
And my students—each class period—were quite possibly the loveliest ever in my twenty-two new beginnings. No one complained about sitting in alphabetical order, which is my strategy for memorizing 192 new names. They folded printer paper into thirds like a brochure and wrote their name on one side where I could see and call on them. On the inside, they wrote a goal for themselves before they graduate and one piece of advice for me. Then, they worked together on a poem puzzle, fill-in-the-blank with cut-out pieces of words and phrases. (By the way, not my original idea. I borrowed the lesson from a generous giver found here.) I had kids who pulled it off. Here’s the key to the puzzle:
Good Bones by Maggie Smith
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
Students annotated the text, and then we discussed the importance of certain words and phrases and clauses. They liked Maggie Smith’s poem and the freedom to say “shithole.”
“Good,” I said. “But what’s this poem about?”
“It’s about a mother protecting her child from the dark side of life,” they said.
“Yes,” I said, “but what’s it really about?”
“It ends on a note of hope,” they said. “It’s about the duality of life…She believes her child can make the world beautiful—We can all make life more beautiful.”
And like that, my students analyzed poetry on Day One.
“And we all bring our own experiences to our reading,” I said. “Could the speaker be a teacher? Could her children be students? Life is short and half terrible, but we have the power, especially as artists, to make it beautiful.”
At the end of my school day, I read their advice to me. One said, “Just love us. We love you already.” My heart burst a bit, broke a bit, and I breathed a prayer of gratitude. From my classroom, I walked down the hallway to the stairwell, took six flights down to the parking garage, and hopped in my car to drive home—to wait for another brand-new day.
I was home on the couch on a Saturday. While watching Anne with an “E,” I tapped affirmation after affirmation into my phone. The whole series radiates girl power, especially Season 3, Episode 5, “I Am Fearless and Therefore Powerful.”
In this episode, the kids practice for the upcoming barn dance at school. It reminded me of the time in fifth grade when we learned to square dance for a hoe down in the gym with parents invited. I was mortified about touching the boys’ hands and refused to dance. Then, my music teacher sent me to the principal’s office for invoking my right to choose. But wait, I had no rights. Click here for that story. In the same way, while dancing with boys as part of school, the girls in Anne with an “E” are plagued with fears about becoming pregnant via touching the boys. During a secret, moonlit bonfire ceremony, Anne and her friends meet and invoke the Goddess of Beltane (representative of fertility), Sacred Mother, Queen of May, Wild Lady of the Woods, and Guardian of Love and Life. Wearing white nightgowns and floral wreaths atop their heads, the girls dance around the fire, proclaim their affirmations, and release their fears:
“We shall choose whom to love and with whom to share trust.”
“We shall walk upon this earth with grace and respect.”
“We’ll always take pride in our great intellect.”
“We’ll honor our emotions so our spirits may soar!”
“And should any man belittle us, we’ll show him the door!”
“Our spirits are unbreakable, our imaginations free!”
“Walk with us, Goddess, so blessed are we!”
The Netflix series is based on the Anne of Green Gables book series, set on Prince Edward Island in Canada, 1899. I haven’t read the books, but now I’m curious. Did L. M. Montgomery write with this feminist spin? Or is this a modern retelling? Either way, I love how Anne appreciates the little things and lives in the moment. Of course, she is human and feisty and has her bad days. Don’t we all?
More great quotes from the show:
“Grace is perennial like the green, green grass.”
“No one but you is allowed to dictate what you’re worth.”
For my 2022 Goodreads Reading Challenge, I set my goal at thirty books. As of May, this teacher had fallen behind her own self-imposed schedule. So, as my grading wound down for the year and summer approached, I committed to flipping extra pages and finishing the unread books on my shelves. Funny how some of these books have faded already to a distant memory. Here are some snippets:
Considered a classic of the Harlem Renaissance and regarded as influential in both African American literature and women’s literature, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God takes place in rural Florida in the early part of the 20th century. After two marriages, Janie finally finds love, her voice, and ultimately herself. A co-worker recommendation. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read this one before now. I gave it 5 of 5 stars on Goodreads and plan to use it in the classroom next year.
“She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.”
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
The winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less is the story of a lesser-known novelist turning fifty. Unable to accept the invitation to his former long-term lover’s wedding, Less tours the world in the name of literature and grapples with aging and loneliness, creativity and grief, self-pity and more. It’s a love story, a satire of the American abroad, and a rumination on time, the human heart, and our shared human comedy. This was a re-read for me, the last book of the school year for my students, and 5 stars on Goodreads.
“I’ve got a theory. Now hear me out. It’s that our lives are half comedy and half tragedy. And for some people, it just works out that the first entire half of their lives is tragedy and then the second half is comedy.”
Andrew Sean Greer, Less
The winner for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys follows the life of Elwood Curtis, unjustly arrested through a cruel twist of fate and sentenced to a Florida reform school in the 1960’s. Based on the Dozier School for Boys with a 111-year history of cruelty, abuse, and murder, the novel sheds light on the current reality of the United States. I listened to this one on Audible during my commute and wished that I had read it with my eyes. Still, I gave in 5 stars.
“Even in death the boys were trouble.”
Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest was first performed in 1895, shortly before Wilde’s imprisonment for indecency. With mistaken and hidden identities, the flip-flopping of truth and lies, Wilde’s most-beloved play satirizes the superficiality of Victorian England and the snobbery of the aristocracy. Some of the absurd and witty banter might have gone over my head, so I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads. However, Wilde made me think about earnestness and duality, so I’ll give this one another chance.
“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
The favorite novel of one of my fellow English teachers, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven did not disappoint. Published in 2014, this post-apocalyptic tale takes place before and after the “Georgia Flu” pandemic, which kills most of the population, and follows a troupe of nomadic Shakespearean actors across the Great Lakes region. The weaving of time and plot lines pushed Station Eleven up into the 5 range for me.
“What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.”
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
Published in Swedish during 2012 and in English the following year, Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove depicts the story of a grumpy, hopeless 59-year-old man, who grieves the love of his life. Ove annoyed me at times but reminded me that no feeling is final, and I couldn’t seem to put the book down. I gave it 4 stars.
“Love is a strange thing. It takes you by surprise.”
Fredrik Backman, AMan Called Ov
I started Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose back in January. Not necessarily a fun read, but not finishing was not an option. I most appreciated Part 3 on the lyricism, melody, and rhythm of writing and rated this book 3 stars on Goodreads.
A dependence on is and its family screams “rough draft.”
Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave.
Cheryl Strayed, Wild
Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail tells the story of losing her mother, divorcing her husband, and shooting up heroin for a while before setting off on an 1100-mile, solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, ultimately, a journey of self-forgiveness, strength, and redemption. 4 stars.
What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to f* every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?
Cheryl Strayed, Wild
Another co-worker favorite and a best-known of Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway illustrates a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class woman in post first world war England, with a parallel story of a war veteran, Septimus Smith. I have no doubt I missed some nuance in meaning; however, Woolf’s exquisite stream-of-consciousness prose warrants a 5 and a re-read one day.
It is a thousand pities never to say what one feels.
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
Inspired by the story of a Belgian woman who assisted downed Allied pilots to escape Nazi territory, Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingaleportrays the storylines of two French sisters during World War II. A good story of love and survival, less-authentic than other works of historical fiction, 4 stars.
But love has to be stronger than hate, or there is no future for us.
Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale
Anne Lamott wished her father had written down everything he had learned while alive, so just before her sixty-first birthday, she made a list of her own for her grandson and niece. Almost Everything: Notes on Hope is classic Anne Lamott, somewhat repetitive if you’ve read much of her, but quotable nevertheless. And I’m a fan of hope. 3 stars.
John Lennon said, ‘Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end,’ and as this has always been true before, we can hope it will be again.
Anne Lamott, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope
Dawn of the Silver Moon (Shawnee Friends Mission #1) by Margaret Mendenhall (my former Sunday school teacher and wedding pianist) depicts the life of a Quaker girl living in Kansas territory in the 1840s. Shawnee Indians abduct Lucy in an act of vengeance toward her father, and she builds a bridge between cultures through her faith. There were times when I told myself, “That’s impossible,” but by the end, I felt that nothing is impossible with God. 4 stars.
I think…I just heard God speak to me…He said, ‘Be not afraid. It is not as it seems. All things will work together for good to those who are called according to my purpose.’
Margaret Mendenhall, Dawn of the Silver Moon
For years I’ve followed the story of Maggie Doyne, a girl from New Jersey who took a gap year after high school. During her travels, the trajectory of her life dramatically alters when she has a surprise encounter with a Nepali girl breaking rocks in a quarry. At age nineteen, Maggie invests her life savings of five thousand dollars to buy a piece of land and open a children’s home and school in Nepal. Maggie Doyne’s memoir Between the Mountain and the Sky: A Mother’s Story of Love, Loss, Healing, and Hope is a coming-of-age story that shows how ordinary people have the power to change the world. An inspirational 5 stars.
No matter where I go, I always seem to end up in places like this one—alleyways, outskirts, trash heaps—the back pockets of a place where less desirable things and people get stuffed away. I’ve been traveling all over he South Pacific and living in India on my gap year, but still, a mix of sadness, fear, and shame hits me under my tongue every time I see these hidden, tucked-away places. Little kids go to work in some places. They’re porters, laborers on construction sites, domestics, agricultural workers. Watching them work is jarring—watching them work with a smile, even more so. The girl pulls herself up, shakes the pebble from her skirt, and sizes up a new hunk of shale.
Maggie Doyne, Between the Mountain and the Sky
I’m always thinking about my next book and still have some waiting on my shelf. Dare I ask what you’ve been reading?
This past week I’ve been mining for gold. And by gold, I mean golden nuggets of wisdom. And by mining for wisdom, I mean rereading Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. It’s a genre-bending novel with elements of magical realism, fantasy, coming-of-age, surrealism, and crime fiction. This week’s classroom reading: The Prologue titled “A Boy Named Crow” and Chapters 1-7. While introducing the book, I said, “Murakami is really good at directly stating themes, and the AP test always asks about character complexity. So as you read, look for those two things: What makes the narrator complex? And theme.”
Together we read the four-page prologue accompanied by audio. The truth is—if I assign the reading and walk away, some students will never read. The audio is my new teaching strategy for making them read. Some only listen. Then I tell them to discuss with their neighbors. Some don’t, so then we discuss as a whole class. Some things are out of my control. Some things are in.
As a theme, students identify the line, “Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions” (5). We talk about the sandstorm as a metaphor or a symbol for break-ups and death, illness and accidents. We speak of foreshadowing and a shifting point of view. We discuss how the entire plot is revealed in the prologue: “On my fifteenth birthday I’ll run away from home, journey to a far-off town, and live in the corner of a small library” (6). Finally, they write in blue books for about twelve minutes. We are practicing literary analysis.
For homework this past week and through the weekend, students are reading Chapters 1-7. I am, too. Chapter 1 reveals how the narrator’s mother took his older sister and left ten years earlier. He has no memories of them, only a photo. His father threw the rest away. Just past midnight on his fifteenth birthday, our narrator boards a night bus leaving Tokyo and believes an omen is with him, “like a shadow” (12). For now, this omen is a mystery, foreshadowing an Oedipal curse to be revealed. The book was published in 2002. Most of the story takes place in modern day.
The narrative shifts to another point of view in even chapters. Chapters 2 and 4 include U.S. military intelligence reports and investigations of an incident involving sixteen Japanese school children. The students mysteriously fall unconscious during a field trip on November 7, 1944. This mystery depicts the backstory of Nakata who sustains a coma due to the event and foreshadows an alternating storyline to come.
In Chapter 3, our narrator meets an older girl on the bus and speculates if she could be his sister. In Chapter 5, he tells her his name, Kafka Tamura. Her name is Sakura, not his sister’s name, but he thinks about how names can be easily changed, especially when running away. Kafka, a pseudonym, arrives at his destination Takamatsu, 450 miles away from home, and Sakura gives him her phone number. That day, he kills time at the library. “Some wealthy man from an old family in the suburbs had renovated his personal library into a private library open to the public” (34). At the library, Kafka meets Oshima who works behind the desk. They discuss the ancient Greek philosophy of Aristophanes (scroll to end of page for details). Oshima advises Kafka to take a tour lead by the library curator, the sophisticated Miss Saeki. Kafka thinks how it would “be great if this were [his] mother” (40). His abandonment issues are real. He seems to be on a quest for family while running away from his father. Later that day, Kafka checks himself into a second-rate hotel.
In Chapter 6, we meet Nakata, who cannot read or write since the mysterious coma in his youth, but he can communicate with cats. This is where the novel takes a silly turn. A pet detective of sorts, Nakata searches for lost cats and speaks with them for clues. One cat explains some common knowledge to Nakata—that “cats are creatures of habit…unless something extraordinary happens they generally try to keep to their routine. What might disrupt this is either sex or an accident” (49). The cat explains sex to Nakata and concludes, “There are all kinds of people in the world, and all kinds of cats” (50). Nakata agrees with the cat yet claims to be dumb due to an accident. He tells the cat how the accident made his mother cry and his father angry. He explains how his parents are dead, so his father doesn’t hit him anymore, and his mother doesn’t cry, and he lives on a government “sub city” (51). There’s so much truth in this seemingly absurd conversation. Sex and accidents also disrupt the lives of humans. I would add illness to this statement. Because there are “all kinds of people in the world,” we have varying reactions to situations, especially the ones out of our control. The cat also notices that Nakata’s shadow is faint, a motif that connects back to Kafka’s omen following him like a shadow. The cat says, “You should give up looking for lost cats and start searching for the other half of your shadow” (52). The scene parallels what Oshima tells Kafka in the previous chapter about Aristophanes and how we all search for our other halves.
In Chapter 7, Kafka goes to the front desk at his hotel to negotiate the price of his room, explaining how he is a student on a budget, collecting materials from the Komura Memorial Library for his graduation paper. Negotiation is a life skill, and Kafka is now fending for himself. He notices the girl behind the desk is about the same age as his sister. He finds a public gym and works out, then goes to the library like the day before. Each morning, like a cat, Kafka sticks to the same routine, working out at the gym, showering, eating, then feeding his brain. At the library he reads the Burton edition of Arabian Nights. “They’re full of obscene, violent, sexual, basically outrageous scenes…crazy, preposterous stories of a thousand years ago” (57). I’m curious about these stories. All I know is the Disney version of Aladdin.
I search for more information on Burton’s translation (1885-88) and find that it remains the most complete version of One Thousand and One Nights in English and was also criticized for its use of archaic language and excessive erotic detail (Wikipedia). I also find a PDF from the Trinity College Library, Toronto. I download the first volume and skim. It begins with an Arab proverb: “To the pure all things are pure.” I skim further—erotic detail, page six.
Arabian Nights stands as a solid metaphor for Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Murakami also fills his storyline with obscene, violent, sexual, basically outrageous scenes and crazy, preposterous stories. As for Kafka, “on the evening of the eighth day—as had to happen sooner or later—[his] simple, centripetal life is blown to bits” (60). I suppose whatever happened is fate. Cliffhanger.
That’s the Week One reading. I look up centripetal. Sir Isaac Newton describes it as “A force by which bodies are drawn or impelled towards a point as to a center” (Wikipedia). As Kafka inwardly searches for his own answers, something happens beyond his control.
I can’t stop reading. In Chapter 9, Kafka wakes up on the ground in thick brush near a shrine he doesn’t recognize. He is covered in blood. His shoulder hurts. Yet another piece to this puzzle.
Okay, I admit—Kafka on the Shore is not for everyone, but it will leave you thinking, and I feel richer for reading.
“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts….Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away….This storm is you. Something inside you.”
Chapter 3 Gold:
“In traveling, a companion, in life, compassion.”
Chapter 5 Gold:
“According to Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, in the ancient world of myth there were three types of people….In ancient times people weren’t just male or female, but one of three types: male/male, male/female, or female/female. In other words, each person was made out of the components of two people. Everyone was happy with this arrangement and never really gave it much thought. But then God took a knife and cut everybody in half, right down the middle. So after that the world was divided just into male and female, the upshot being that people spend their time running around trying to locate their missing other half.”
“There are many things we only see clearly in retrospect.”
27. “Which of the following lines is written in tetrameter?”
I shook my head. I was reading a test written by a high-stakes test-making conglomerate when I stumbled upon this question. This is the type of test kids taking advanced English classes in the US must pass to receive college credit while in high school. The type of test I would give as a semester exam—as a practice test for the real deal in May. “That’s one of the dumbest questions I’ve ever heard,” I said to myself.
I suppose, if students knew that any poetry term ending in “meter” had to do with rhythms and syllables, they might have a fighting chance at the answer. If they counted the syllables of all five answer choices and realized that four of the choices had ten syllables and one choice had eight syllables, they might realize that one of these things is not like the other. As an English teacher of twenty plus years, I had never used the word tetrameter in my classroom. Pentameter. Yes. Iambic pentameter.
In Shakespeare’s tragedy about Julius Caesar, Mark Antony looks upon Caesar’s fresh corpse and says,
“Oh, par | don me, | thou bleed | ing piece | of earth…”
We could discuss the apostrophe, the personification, the metaphor, and the perfect iambic pentameter. We could divide the line into five feet, each two syllables, also called an iamb. An unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. If I put my hand under my chin and say the words aloud, my chin will drop on the stressed syllable. “Oh” is unstressed. The “par” in pardon is stressed. The rest of the line follows the same pattern. Anything beyond iambic pentameter, I must look up and study.
And so, in preparation for the semester exam, I gave my students my best iambic pentameter lesson as a quick segue into what the test wanted them to know about tetrameter. We haven’t studied Shakespeare yet. “If penta in Greek means five, what does tetra mean?”
“Four,” they said.
“Good!” I gestured to the line from Julius Caesar written on my white board, “So, if iambic pentameter is five feet of two syllables, equaling ten syllables total, how many syllables do you think tetrameter would be?”
“Four,” they said.
I slapped my own forehead. “No. Eight,” I said, trying not to sound frustrated over a misunderstood mini-lesson and a stupid test question. “If you see a question on your test asking about tetrameter, count the syllables and look for eight.” I paused to make sure they were listening. “I have no doubt there are exceptions to this rule, and we’ll discuss a few later. On your semester exam, tetrameter means eight syllables.” That was the best I could do aside from saying, “The answer to number 27 is C.”
They nodded their heads up and down, and I tried very hard not to tell my students this question was ridiculous. I might have anyway.
Flash forward to exam day. I actively monitored, walking up and down the aisles, when a book on my shelf caught my eye. Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. I grabbed it. The subtitle—How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose—called my name. The teacher before me had left it behind.
I opened the book and thumbed through the pages about words and sentences and stopped at Part 3—Music. “When you get your grammar down, when you simplify your syntax, you are halfway to mastering the craft of writing,” Hale says. “Appreciate music in prose, and develop your ear for it. Devour novels. Cue up recordings of famous speeches. Fall in love with poetry. Go to the video store and check out all those Shakespeare movies. Read your writing aloud.”
“Nice advice,” I thought and flipped further.
In the last chapter on “Rhythm,” Hale says, “Metric feet can have up to five syllables, but the most common have two or three.” And that’s why a question on tetrameter twists my panties. Tetrameter could be any number of syllables. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
“As a prose stylist, you don’t really need to memorize the names of metric feet,” Hale says, “but you do need to appreciate their effect….When we listen carefully to our writing and reshape its rhythms to our liking, prose can become music.” She says the verses of the Bible, especially the King James, “are so easily received, remembered, and recited because of their rhythms.”
Hale cites the iambic pentameter of playwright, David Mamet, the rhythms of Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy, the repetitions of Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien, the musicality of Virginia Woolf and Martin Luther King, Jr. She writes about parallelism and a Jell-O commercial, rap and Grandmaster Flash.
And Hale’s last chapter reminded me of my last MFA class, Topics and Genres. A study of mentor texts with a focus on opening lines. Dr. Boyleston said, “Your story is only as good as your command of the language.” And he wrote Isak Denison’s first sentence from Out of Africa on the whiteboard:
“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”
Our class discussed. I took notes. The first six words of the novel are iambic, and the “had” emphasizes the past tense conflict. The narrator no longer has the farm. The prepositional phrases, “in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills,” reveal a general location—Africa—and a specific location—the Ngong Hills. The repeating anapestic rhythm connects the music of language and beauty of landscape. In this simple sentence, there are only two polysyllabic words. The rest are monosyllabic, which slow you down and lend a sense of gravity. It’s almost Biblical. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” This lesson on rhythms was one of my favorites of my MFA at HBU.
And still, who cares if I can identify a dactyl or trochee by name? Uh, not me. Tetrameter. Shrameter. The technicality makes no difference. But the musicality? Now that’s another story.
Then we watch a video. Same poem another person’s thoughts. The ending goes straight to my heart. I might have seen students wiping their eyes. Students in a class later that day laughed, a contagious laugh. I’ve learned I can’t control anyone else’s reactions, only my own.
We speak of the first Thanksgiving and how the Native Americans were later robbed. The lesson is heavy, but thought-provoking, and the students quite like the two poems side-by-side. I’m posting from my phone today and unable to format this poem as intended. Otherwise, you would clearly see that each line ends with the following words consecutively: We strike straight. We sing Sin We thin gin We Jazz June, We die soon). The students minds are blown.
“Now I want you to create something as a celebration of Thanksgiving—maybe a poem, a song, or art—and give a mini presentation. This is how it works. You entertain me, and I give you a 100. I would be so happy if someone would sing me a song. You have thirty minutes. Go.”
I teach high school English. Can I say how much I hate multiple-choice tests over literature? I never took a multiple-choice test in my college English classes. Instead, I wrote.
In a perfect world, I would teach books I love, and the kids would experience the love of story and language. Then again, the world isn’t perfect. Students have obligations and jobs, and I would be naïve to believe they’re all reading. Let me take a stab and say 50% of them, give or take, are not. Most classic pieces of literature have been made into movies. Take for instance, Jane Eyre. How many of my students watched the movie and called it a day? Should I give up on the classics? Should I give up on reading checks?
I’m locked into this year’s general plan, but I’m rethinking for next year, my how and my what. Meanwhile, I endeavor to pull my students through a novel I love. In my classroom, I have seven table groups of four or five, thirty-two students total in my largest classes. I have a few go-to activities for literature re-cap: reader’s theatre (students act out a chapter or passage with books in hand, narrating and acting out the dialogue) and ShrinkLits (shrinking the literature or a chapter down to a rhyming summary, a concept developed by Maurice Sagoff in a book by the same title). Of course, there are times I assign specific passages to be read (hopefully re-read) closely for discussion and analysis. And of course, there are writing assignments, too. For the activities, I assign table groups a specific chapter, as a summary (or a preview for those who have fallen behind), and they present to the class. At a performing and visual arts high school, they take their acting seriously. Our reader’s theatre was quite outstanding. However, as with anything, overdoing it loses the magic. This year when I had used all my best tricks for Jane Eyre, I confessed: “I’m out of ideas. I’m going to give your table a chapter, and you can decide how to present it. You have thirty minutes.”
And so today I’m thankful for white board space and students with ideas. Some students presented in news reporting format, others did interviews, one group played charades, which actually happens in the novel, and my dancers danced to Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” for Chapter XVI, where Mr. Rochester tries to make Jane jealous through a feigned relationship with Blanche Ingram. (The lyrics go like this: “Hey, Hey, hey, you, you, I don’t like your girlfriend / No way, no way, I think you need a new one / Hey, hey, you, you, I could be your girlfriend…)
And you know what? Some of my students love Jane Eyre as much as I do. That makes me happy.