There’s a long list of middle school distractions to get through before Eric’s story will be finished.
Don’t buy a house in Oklahoma.
That was the first line of an essay resting on the screen of a laptop checked out to Eric, a seventh-grader in my middle school language arts classes. It stopped me in my tracks.
I whispered, “Why shouldn’t I buy a house in Oklahoma?” He proceeded to tell me, but I stopped him. “No, you gotta write that down,” I said urgently. “It’s a great opening sentence. Go!”
But he didn’t. He gave me a blank look and just sat there. I walked to the next desk to give him a minute to think. I glanced back. He was making faces at Amanda in the next row over.
Time for my little black chair, I thought. So I retrieved the chair from my closet that fits ever so nicely between the rows of desks in my classroom. It allows me to maneuver right down into the trenches alongside my students. I sat down next to Eric.
“How can I help you get started?” As I sat down, I untangled my lanyard again from my chunky stone necklace.
“I dunno,” he mumbled through auburn bangs. I stood there, thinking of an approach to take with Eric, whom educators would call a “hesitant” or “struggling” writer. He tossed his head back, his long bangs surging like a wave and then falling again to conceal freckles dotting a fair complexion.
I stared at him while he searched his binder for a pencil he wouldn’t need. I know this kid has writing talent, I thought, or he wouldn’t have no naturally jotted out that first stunner of a lead sentence. If he only had confidence in his words.
I lifted Erick’s laptop from the desk, thinking I would type as he spoke his story. And, true, maybe I should have waited a bit before doing that, but I did it anyway. As a writer, I know how important it is to strike while the fire is hot and with a line like Don’t buy a house in Oklahoma, I knew Erick had to explore it. Pronto.
I adjusted the screen. “Tell me why I shouldn’t buy house in Oklahoma.” He began to talk, and I started to type.
And then the bell rang.
The following day, we picked up where we had left off. I sat back down with him and we continued. Eric dictated for about thirty minutes, telling me the story of the tornado and the havoc it had wrought: broken windows, lost belongings, damaged cars, angry parents, minor injuries. Eager to be finished, he rattled off a makeshift ending. “There. That’s all I got,” he reported, glancing up at the clock. “Time to pack up.”
“Not so fast,” I said. “Grab this off the printer, please.” I formatted the story and pressed print so he could see on paper just how much he had produced in less than one class period. He—or we, I guess—had completed a first draft. It was the most writing he had produced in my class all year.
Eric stared at the three pages of double-spaced twelve-point Times New Roman he had created, scanning the paragraphs to the end.
“You spelled Choctaw wrong,” he said.
I smiled. “Well, circle it, Mr. Man, and we’ll fix it tomorrow. By the way, that’s an awesome story.”
Over the next few days and weeks, his narrative went no further than that first draft. Thanks to standardized testing, some end-of-the-year field trips, and the arrival of summer break, his first draft of the essay or story or whatever it will be, was put on hold again.
But not for much longer.
In a couple of weeks, Eric and I will resurrect his draft from Google Docs and see if we can find a direction for it. (He has no idea I’ve been thinking about it now and then over the past several months.) There will be time in our class schedule to develop, revise, and otherwise polish that first draft into a piece he can submit to a publisher or a contest, or at least post to his blog.
I have no illusions. It won’t be easy to get that tornado piece finished, but eventually, he’ll arrive at a final draft and turn it in. As his teacher, I absolutely must believe that he’ll feel a sense of accomplishment, whether he’ll admit it, or even recognize it as such. An added bonus: he should gain some confidence in his words as well.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We have a long list of middle school distractions to get through before then. Eric will be bored. He’ll need a drink. His Google Doc will “disappear.” He’ll ask me thirty times, “Is it good yet?” And then, there’s Amanda.
*The names were changed for this essay.