Don't bait your English teacher; you may regret it
My National Novel Writing Month adventures continue. I've fallen behind in my word count, so I'm trying to catch up. In this excerpt, Hannah has given her class an exercise similar to the one that I give in this post, in creating descriptive writing that aims to show, rather than tell, a highly emotional moment in the students' past. In case you're wondering, yes, this sort of thing has actually happened to me, more than once. And no, I didn't respond quite as, um, graphically as Hannah does -- much as I would have liked to -- or I probably wouldn't still have my job. But I did respond in a toned-down version of Hannah's response. Since this is an all-ages blog, I'm also redacting what the student actually wrote.
When she got to the end of the descriptive writing exercise, she had one student volunteer to read his piece, a student who had been something of a class clown while completing almost no homework and turning in essays that were so under-developed that they were really just outlines. As he stood to read, he and the other members of his group started to snicker. He held up his paper, on which Hannah could see he had scrawled only a couple of lines, and began to read: “I went in the room with the girl and she took her clothes off and laid down on the bed. I took my clothes off and laid on top of her, and then I ----ed her and she said she liked it and I did it again and she said I was the best that she ever had and it was my first time.”
By the time he got to the end of his reading, his group-mates were having a hard time containing themselves, but the student himself was looking less and less sure of himself, his voice becoming weaker and his face turning red. Hannah guessed he was now beginning to regret that his buddies had talked him into this. Still, she knew the original plan the the four of them had hatched was probably intended to shock her or otherwise disrupt her composure. She decided to take the offering with a straight face. “Surely you can do better than that,” she said. “We want description, and you had only two adjectives and only two adverbs in that entire piece – and two of those were in what the girl said to you. Since it was your first time, surely your memory of it was more vivid than that.
“What did the girl look like? Short? Tall? Young? Old? What color was her hair, blonde, brunette, red? Was it natural, or did she have roots of another color? Was she fat or skinny? What did her body look like after she took off her clothes – and what sort of clothes were they in the first place? How did you meet her, at a party or on the street or in a brothel? What did you say to each other before you went to the room? What kind of room was it – a motel room, the girl’s bedroom in her parents’ house, some other sort of room? What condition was the room in – was it clean, dirty, with new furnishings or beat-up stuff? What did the air smell like, musty, smoky, flowery air freshener? Was the air in the room cold or hot or just right? Was the lighting dim or bright?
“When you got into the bed with her, what did she smell like – was it some sort of perfume or just sweat or something else? What did the bed sheets smell like – were they clean, or did they smell sour from being used a whole lot since they were last washed? Were they smooth or rough? Did the bed springs creak when you moved? Did the girl make any sounds? When she told you that she liked it and that you were the best that she had ever had, what were her exact words? How did she say them? Did she have any sort of accent?”
Hannah knew that this line of questioning was perhaps a bit cruel. But what she wanted to get across was that vivid descriptions were essential to effective writing, no matter what the subject matter. She knew the old saying about people with inadequate vocabularies being the ones who resorted to obscenities, and perhaps that was the case with this student. She was hoping that thinking a little more deeply would lead the student to write a little more deeply. This was a student who turned in essays that were three-quarters of a page long, triple spaced, and she was trying to get him to stretch a bit. If he wanted to write porn, more power to him, if doing so helped him to provide descriptive words and phrases.
The student was now seriously red-faced, as were his group-mates. The rest of the class had mixed reactions. Some had gone red, some had gone pale, and a few had started laughing, especially a couple of the young women in the class who had previously found this student’s behavior annoying or maybe even offensive. They clearly enjoyed seeing him get some comeuppance.
“Um, Ms. Montgomery,” the student said in a somewhat subdued voice, “I’ll have to get back to you on those answers.”