Last Tuesday, I posted about trying to write in front of my class and failing. On Wednesday, our class used a New York Times mentor text to think about how we can use details to show rather than tell. The text is from an essay called “The Iguana in the Bathtub” by Anne Doten. Here’s how it opens:
When the temperature dipped below 40, iguanas started falling from the trees. Small, sleek green iguanas; big iguanas as long as four feet from snout to tail, scales cresting gloriously from their heads; orange-and-green iguanas, their muscled, goose-pimpled arms resolving into sharp claws. Iguanas were everywhere: in the bushy areas surrounding canals, on sidewalks, in backyards, lying helpless among the fallen, rotting fruit of mango and orange trees.
I encouraged the students to try their hand at opening a scene in this way – exuberant, over the top description. We played around with this for a while, and then everyone got back to work on their own scenes. I didn’t write in front of them on Wednesday, but that evening, as I prepared for the next day’s class, I dove back into my own failed attempt and used the model I’d given the students. Imitating Doten’s opening freed something in me, and the words came more easily. Suddenly, I was able to write the story I’d failed at the day before. On Thursday, I showed my students my progress, and they were suitably impressed – whether with my story or my persistence, I am not sure.
We’ve also looked at dialogue in class, and I don’t have any in here yet, so I’m going to ask for suggestions today. My students are of good ideas. Until then, here’s my revised piece:
When Mrs. Barkman announced the mythology test, all of our eyes widened. We had heard about this test from the upperclassmen: impossible, beyond the feats of human memory, designed exclusively to weed out those of us who didn’t really belong in Honors English, created merely to squash all of our dreams. To hear my best friend’s older brother tell it, every year students ran weeping from the classroom, tearing their hair, blood seeping from their eyes, fingers permanently disfigured from the cramping caused by all the writing. We were scared.
After class, my friends and I huddled in the hallway and murmured worriedly. What would happen if we failed? None of us had ever failed. It was unthinkable.
Somehow, someone appointed me to talk to Mrs. Barkman about the test. I say “somehow” but, looking back, I’m not shocked it was me. I have long been too willing to stand up to authority, especially in the role of defender. I was, simultaneously, intensely studious and intensely willing to speak up. I didn’t yet know if I was a rule-follower or a rebel. I didn’t yet know that I could be both. I was 13. One day I wore blue eyeshadow, “midnight” mascara, and blush applied so heavily that I looked permanently sunburned. The next day I came to school fresh-faced wearing turquoise pants and a Disney t-shirt.
In my mind, I approach Mrs. Barkman as a 13-year-old with pigtails. I tell her that we are not ready for the test tomorrow and that we need more time. In my mind, she looms over me, nose like a hatchet, eyes like a hawk. In my mind, her sharp voice cuts through my tremulous one as she denies me – us – any leeway.
But I might have been wearing mascara so thick that it flaked onto my cheekbones and a shirt designed to show my nearly nonexistent cleavage. It’s possible that I was shrill and demanding. There’s a chance I was more cocky than courageous.
Both scenarios are equally possible. Either way, she refused to move the test.
I worried so much about the test and my encounter with my terrifying teacher that I made myself sick. My mother kept me home from school the next day. Mrs. Barkman gave my peers a ridiculously easy matching test and, when I returned, I took the hard test – alone.
I aced it, but it was months before Mrs. Barkman stopped thinking I had skipped on purpose. I aced it, but I still didn’t know if I was a nerd or a rebel or a social justice warrior. I think I might have just been 13.