“I don’t mean to sound derogatory,” one of my English students told me, “but this writer kind of sounds like he is on drugs.”
That week we had been reading passages about the wind written by two different writers, more than four hundred years apart. One, Joan Didion in her essay “Los Angeles Notebook,” discussed a Santa Ana wind by describing its effect on human behavior; the other, Roger Ascham in an excerpt from his book Toxophilus (1545), revealed the wind by how the snow responded to it. My goal in class was to emphasize how the writers used diction (word choice) and syntax (word order) to make their point; how one topic–the wind–could be exposed as both ominously or delightfully mysterious and powerful because of the way the authors wrote.
Half of my English students will be taking the AP English Language and Composition exam in less than two weeks. I was pressing hard, trying to get them to grasp the concepts of diction and syntax, when one of my AP students made the comment that Ascham seemed to be on drugs. I suspected it was because this student–and likely many others–had not taken the time to simply observe the wind’s antics.
I stopped. Thought briefly. Put my handouts–and the lesson plans for the day–aside. And spoke. I recognized the rabbit trail and willingly followed it.
“We have all of these conveniences,” I said. “I used to call ourselves the ‘microwave society.’ We wanted everything instantly. Then entered computers and all these technological gizmos that ‘make our lives easier.’ We have these conveniences, and yet we absolutely have to multitask to get everything done.
“Last night, for instance, my son Adam got home from a long day of school, followed by a long practice for the musical, missing the baseball game and throwing his coach into conniptions, and, likely, costing the team a win,” I continued. “Then he sat on the couch beside his father watching TV, while using both his iPhone and his laptop, eating his dinner, and exchanging tidbits of information with his father.
“Have these inventions of convenience made our lives any easier? Any slower? Are we spoiled by the luxuries of free time? No! I multitask to get things done. In fact, Friday I left my checkbook in the teachers’ lounge because I was multitasking. (Admittedly, my multitask included buying tickets to the school musical and stopping by the teachers’ lounge for a second slice of coconut cake in honor of several staff members’ birthdays while avoiding the pile of papers waiting to be graded.)”
I pointed out that students thought this observant author was on drugs because we, in 2013, too rarely stop to notice the wind–and other elements in the world around us.
And so I made a decision. We stopped the lesson–abruptly–and went outside so that my students could experience the wind and contemplate nature and write for themselves.
The light, humid movings of the air were mere breezes compared to the Santa Ana terrors and playful snowy winds the authors we had been studying had mentioned. The whispers of nature were mostly overcome by the rumblings of the cars speeding by the schoolyard and the chatter and shrieks of children from the daycare next door. But if I forced myself to look intently, I saw the gentle waving of the late spring leaves and felt my hair blowing across my face. At times, I had to hold my skirt in place to prevent impairing others’ sight–but I held on, quieted myself and observed. I saw my students. Slowing down. Remaining silent. Listening. Looking–and likely loving that my lesson plans (and the resulting essay assignment) had been delayed. They were intent on observing for themselves, and I saw most of them jotting notes.
But twenty minutes later, when I saw one student with a tennis ball in his hand–and another throwing acorns–and a class of middle schoolers arriving on the field, I called the students to get in line. The moment was over.
And so I took my students inside and asked them if they’d like to share their writings with the class. As soon as I heard the first one, I started writing them on my clipboard. These were the sentences and phrases containing their observances that they at first hesitantly, then proudly, shared:
- “Sprigs of grass move about like a million tiny friends anxious to tell their story.” –Danny
- “A small tree, however, as frail as the grass and the weeds with which it grows, may be easily trampled or uprooted.” –Daniel
- “Dew residue remains on the ground held fast by the blades that hold it.” –Nathan
- “Just as men grow beards as they grow older, so do trees as the moss grows.” –Jack
- “The trees calmly sway in the wind despite the screaming children playing at their bases.” –Timothy
- “The trees move, swinging and dancing to the tune of the wind, but not the gray one.” –Kameron
- “As I look, I notice that the odd blend of man and nature is like oil and water, unmixable, yet pollutes the surroundings.”–Nathan
One student, a musician who often writes his own lyrics, managed to compose this:
“So much of life is based on sight, not on what you feel.
Sometimes our eyes are windows, sometimes they are a veil.
So close your eyes for a time and feel the winter wind
‘cuz one day death will die, and the spring will close in.
Where death dies, life comes, so hurry, your time can’t be saved.
And you will find life’s sublime, when death is in its grave.
You see this “life” we live is fleeting, this heart beating in your chest
And at its best can be described as the processes of death.
For what keeps us alive in this winter of death? The hope of what is next” –Clint
Yes, I got a couple less poetic observances, such as “moss swings,” and one questionable, “I have a satisfying breeze running down my leg,” but, overall, I think my students understood these authors of study a bit better for taking a break from assignments and taking the time to observe and write themselves.
Do my students sound like they are on drugs? Or do they sound more like they’ve taken a break from multitasking to merely observe what all these “conveniences” were supposed to afford us: Time to live.
(And use impressive diction and syntax.)
I have to admit I entered my hall duty after class saying, “Best day ever!” to a fellow teacher. Two periods later, however, when my second section of juniors entered my room whining, “You’re not going to make us go outside, are you?” I changed my mind.
We stayed inside, and they got homework. 🙂