Using story to give an assignment to my juniors

by Mr. Sheehy

The following article sets up and articulates an assignment for my juniors, who have just finished a unit called “Quizzical Writers.” In this unit they have read seven short stories that, like the Transformers, have more to them than meets the eye. This is part of my effort to set up understandable purpose for an assignment without over-explaining how it is to be done (a theme I have explored before). It leaves them floundering a bit, but I’m trying to hold strong without spelling out too much.

It is also my attempt to return my teaching to what I’m good at and what I enjoy the most – stories. I’m not an author, but I am a storyteller, and I see no reason not to use that passion in my classroom to communicate more effectively.

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Last weekend, during our “spring break” I spent some time in a local coffee shop doing some reading (selections from The Portable Faulkner) and making a withdrawal on the gift card I’d been given (a white chocolate mocha was the item of interest, though my first sip almost burned my esophagus when I forgot how hot they make those silly things).

Anyway, on the other side of the fireplace sat an old fella, presumably drinking something less snooty than I – maybe a cup of black house blend? His was an aura of simple genuineness – he’d ridden his bike and rested it up against the front window, and then when he sat in that cushioned chair he read nothing and looked at nothing in particular. He just stared at others in the shop, possibly fixing one eye’s peripheral gaze on his unlocked property outside. He reminded me of the folks I have seen at McDonalds on a late morning – sitting comfortably and patiently in a booth with a cup of cheap coffee, content to watch the ever-cycling crowd. Thus, I assumed the black coffee.

I did not stare at him, as I was too interested in my reading to be drawn away from it long, and I was therefore surprised when a gruff voice broke the rhythm of Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun.” I looked up to see the old man leaning over me with a stern expression. I hadn’t heard what he had said.

“I’m sorry?”

“I said, have you noticed you’ve got a hole in your pants?”

“Yes. I have. It’s all my own, though. It wasn’t there when I bought them, and I’m too cheap to buy a new pair.”

“Smart[alec]. What are you reading there?”

“Faulkner. Short stories.” I anticipated his next question and chose to answer it: “They’re pretty good.”

“Garbage.” I anticipated wrong.

With his next words, he dropped himself into the chair beside me, dumping his coffee with a haphazard motion onto the small end table between us. It had a lid, I couldn’t see what it was. “You’re just readin’ that because it’s got his name in huge yellow print on the bindin’. If no one were here – includin’ the silly image you’ve got of yourself – you’d be readin’ the Reader’s Digest sittin’ on that shelf.”

“Wow. That’s strong. I’ll give you the Digest’s joke section. But other than that, I don’t know. What happened between you and Faulkner? Bad introduction in high school?”

“Faulkner, Hemingway, Great Gatsby. You can have them. A bunch of hoity toity ‘watch me and my fancies’ writers. You can’t make any sense out of ’em, and you can’t enjoy ’em.”

“Hemingway as hoity-toity? That’s a new one. What would you read? Who’s better?”

“Anybody. Stephen King for one. Somebody who understands it ain’t about fancy stuff, it’s about readin’. Like gettin’ to the next page. Your ‘literature-men’ ” – With this he cast the back of his hand towards my book, as if to brush it out of my hands – “write like they think the reader is going to read it twice.”

“Maybe they will. Don’t you want to think back on something when you’ve read it?”

“Think back? To recall a great scene, sure. To figure out what the heck I just read, no way. If you can’t get it from readin’ it, it ain’t worth gettin’.”

“But thinking on it is the beauty of it. What if you thought back to a great scene and when you remembered it, you suddenly realized it meant more than you first thought?”

“That’s what they say. That ain’t how it works. You think back to it and you wonder why they put that in there. And you don’t know. And the truth is no one knows either, ‘cept a few other hoity-toities who pretend to know and make other people read it.”

“Well, no one said it was easy. But I think regular folks can get this stuff. You could. You probably get it more than you know. All you have to do is reach up to the higher levels of meaning -”

“Now you’re talking like one of them again.” This time he cast the back of his hand to his ear, indicating the rest of the shop behind us? I wasn’t sure how broadly he meant them to be. “You make more sense when you’re defending your ridiculous pants.”

“Okay, okay. What I’m saying is that with some careful reading, some real curiosity – maybe asking other people questions and seeing what a group of people can figure out in conversation – you might get more than you thought you could.”

“Sounds cute. You got an example?”

“Well actually, yeah.” I reached into my bag and withdrew a folder full of essays from my juniors. I don’t know why I had them – I never bring work home and when I do, like this time, I never do anything with it – but I pulled one out this time and handed it to the old man, who took it willingly.

I didn’t hope for much. His eyebrows furrowed as he took the essay from me – a thin, three page sample – and the grimace stayed. Even when he lifted his coffee to his mouth and sipped it, his expression never broke. If you’d taken a picture and photoshopped out the paper, you’d have thought he was drinking the worst cup of coffee in town.

When he finished, he flipped the pages back to the beginning. “Some of these stories he read sound pretty good.”

“They are good. But they’re by your hoity-toity folks – O’Connor, Fitzgerald, Faulkner.”

“They don’t all sound good.” He shot me a look of reproach. “But some of ’em do.”

“He argues that the more than meets the eye part is what makes the story great.”

“I suppose it could – like he said. But I’d have to read these stories to see for myself.”

I held out the copy of the Portable Faulkner and raised my eyebrows.

“Some other time. I got places to go.” With that he struggled out of the chair and took a hunched step to the fireplace, which he grabbed with one hand as he straightened his frame. He laughed through his nostrils one time as he walked away, and I heard him remark without ever looking back to me, “If you’d spend less money on that fancy-coffee you might be able to buy yourself some pants.”

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The assignment: Please write the essay that the old man read. Make it three pages long (I recommend at least 6 paragraphs) and use three stories to support your explanation that a story can have more to it than meets the eye, and that often that “more” is what makes it great.

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