My Novels class is currently reading (or supposed to be reading — wink wink) this classic novel by Norman Maclean. I’m reading it again alongside them and this morning I arrived at page forty. It’s only 110 pages long, so it’s a quick read.
If you haven’t read this novella, do; it’s a breath of fresh air in this time of social distancing. (And sidenote: If you’re not into fly-fishing, push through the long, tedious paragraphs about casting, fish psychology and other specific aspects of the sport; however, don’t dismiss these purposeful passages either. Maclean uses fly-fishing metaphorically to tell his story.)
Based between Helena and Missoula, Montana, much of the action takes place on the Big Blackfoot and the smaller Elkhorn. The story shows the struggles of a young Montanan named Paul Maclean through the eyes of his older brother, Norman. The brothers share idyllic childhoods as the sons of a Presbyterian minister. In telling about his brother’s adult life that revolves around journalism, betting, alcohol, and fly-fishing, Norman shares his own struggle to take care of those we love but don’t ever quite understand.
That’s all I’ll say for now, but know that this novel takes you out on great northern rivers, along Montana roads, into dark and dusty speak-easies, and into Presbyterian church pews where a message of love and forgiveness is extolled.
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.
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After writing poems about their favorite places… in a comfy chair in their bedroom, on a sturdy branch in an oak tree in their backyard, in a deer stand high above a pasture… a box popped up on the Submit page. It read: Confirm your humanity.
Didn’t they just do that, I thought? When kids write about playing with Barbie dolls, crashing a bike, sipping hot chocolate, or swooshin’ a three, aren’t they also confirming their humanity?
And yes, I get it. This is 2018. Security and privacy are tantamount. Especially in schools. But in a poetry contest? Are there really robots out there writing poetry? Maybe so.
The odd thing is that while most were asked to confirm their humanity, some weren’t. Some were immediately ushered to the Success! screen, which meant they could log off their laptops and continue on to the next activity.
However, most spent another five minutes scanning and clicking through minuscule thumbnails of traffic scenes looking for street signs.
Mrs. Yung, is a billboard a traffic sign?
Mrs. Yung, I can’t tell what’s in this picture.
Mrs. Yung, I keep getting them wrong.
I sat with a student to help him confirm his humanity through four different series of traffic-clogged urban street scenes. Writing a poem about the cattle auction at the sale barn hadn’t been enough.
And that example reveals the extra rub: in front of our school, which sits in the middle of rolling farmland, one flashing yellow light slows drivers to 45 mph. In other words, it can be difficult for some students to confirm their humanity out here by scrutinizing a series of bustling city street scenes. There are horses grazing across the road, for cryin’ out loud.
So, even though it may be difficult to relate to the technological safeguards that are intended to keep them safe from harm and fraud, those safeguards are still something my students and I must observe. Clicking on all those fuzzy photos is the price we must pay to affirm, confirm, and maintain our humanity.
Or even just write a poem.
I posted this last week on Medium.com. Technology in the classroom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Last week, my 8th-graders tried a new project with me; the results were interesting and in some cases, outstanding! I’ll have a report on that next week. Follow me to get the notification! Thanks for reading.