Thursday, October 13, 2011

On Becoming Liberated

Dedicated to courageous teachers everywhere who make a difference in students’ lives

My fifth-grade teacher introduced me to women’s liberation in the mid-1970s. The concept was a new one to me and to my classmates, an ideology that some of the female fifth-graders, including me, quickly embraced.

The teacher, who emphasized the Ms. prefix to her name, read a chapter to our class each day from The Emancipation of Clementine. As an adult, I’ve searched for this book, without success. It marked an important turning point in how I defined myself, and I am sad that the book is lost to me.

This book was a coming-of-age story, detailing the liberation of a woman named Clementine. I’m sure the book was not a favorite of the boys in my class—except they did seem to take great pleasure in the bra-burning episode. For us girls, however, the book took on great meaning as the concept of equality burgeoned in our otherwise busy brains.

One spring day, which Ms. Teacher may consider her coup de maitre, some of the more inspired females exhibited our first liberating tendencies. We had no bras to burn; for that matter, our pre-pubescent bodies were not yet ready for that constrictive tether of womanhood. Instead, at recess, we set out to rescue a playground tire from the creek at the bottom of the hill where some pranksters had left it. However, since it had rained most of the preceding week, the ground was slippery, the tire muddy and heavy with water, and the creek bed flooded.

Nevertheless, liberated women that we were, and seeing no males equal to the job (or interested), four of us rolled up our sleeves and marched en masse down the hill to the creek and straight into the filthy water. We pushed and pulled and strained at that mud-laden tire, finally freeing it from the creek. We rolled the tire up the hill and laid it to rest in its original spot on the playground. We congratulated one another on a job well done and enjoyed the last few minutes of recess, even as we shivered with the cold and wet.

The school bell rang and we returned to class in our sodden clothes. We received several suspicious looks from our classmates, as well as the teacher, although nobody commented on our sorry state. As our clothes dried, our bodies began to itch, and our mud-stained fingers left tattle-tale marks on our papers and books.

When school let out for the day, the contingent of liberated women marched from the fifth-grade classroom for home, eager to describe our miraculous deed to our parents. Surprisingly, my mother was not as understanding as I had hoped; in fact, she seemed much more concerned with my soiled clothing than with the incredible blow dealt for feminism. Her scolding and her scornful expressions as I talked about our inspiration, Clementine, caused me to waiver in my dedication to the feminine cause.

The next day, our teacher began to read to us from a new book. I was surprised and disappointed, because we hadn’t finished hearing about Clementine’s feminist adventures. At recess, I discovered that all four mothers had called to discuss the “liberation event,” as it was quietly called, with our teacher, who had been reprimanded by the principal. From then on, liberation was no longer taught in our classroom, and Clementine’s story faded from the class’s collective memory.

It wasn’t until much later in life that I at last understood what our teacher had risked to introduce us to Clementine. Her willingness to put her job on the line to expand our narrow view of womanhood resonated with me. I remembered the elation the four of us felt as we outperformed the males by engaging in our rescue operation; I remembered the invigorating rush of adrenaline as we returned to class sodden, muddy, having achieved a goal we never before would have considered; I remembered the powerful feeling of working together as a group of females to accomplish a task that we had previously thought of as “men’s work.” In our determined march down the hill toward the creek, inspired by the story our teacher shared with us, we sowed the seeds of the women we would blossom into: potent women who would choose the direction of their lives despite (or perhaps, because of) the roles that society would otherwise attempt to impose upon us.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Show, Don't Tell: Using Scenework as an Alternative to Narration

"Show, don't tell." That statement is certainly good advice for every writer of fiction, but it is also good advice for every writer of descriptive and personal experience essays.

The key to the descriptive narrative is in the scenework: creating scenes using dialogue, description, and sensory details. It is not enough to narrate; you must engage your reader, must allow your reader to experience the pivotal moments of your essay as directly and powerfully as possible. On the other hand, when you use narration you create distance between the author and the reader.

Let's take a look at an example. The following paragraph is an example of narration, which merely tells the reader succinctly what is going on in the story:

My mother taught me to read when I was four, just a year before she died. She loved to read and passed that love of reading on to me. When I was a bit older, my father took me to the Carnegie library to check out books. I remember staring in awe at the towering stacks, and I was excited to learn I could check out as many as 12 books at once. Upon arriving home, I would crack the first book, only to return for more two weeks later.

Here's that same passage as scenework, which pulls the reader in through its brief exchange of dialogue, its description, and its sensory detail (note that nearly all the senses--sight, smell, hearing, and touch--are appealed to; only taste is left out because it wouldn't be reasonable to include here):

My mother taught me to read when I was four, just one year before she died. I can still see the faded olive cover of the graduated Winston Reader Primer I learned from, still feel the rough, knotty texture, still smell the musty fragrance of the book as she turned its yellowing pages. So began my love affair with books.

When I was six, my father took me to visit our Carnegie library. I stood, small frame bent beneath the weight of the heavy, echoing silence, and stared, awestruck, at the towering shelves overflowing with books. When I learned I could check out as many as 12 books at a time, I was elated. I staggered to the desk, arms loaded to my chin.

"That's an awful lot of books for such a small child," the librarian said, peering down at me with bespectacled eyes.

"I would check out more if I could."

She smiled at me, and my father ruffled my hair. Two weeks later, I returned the 12 books I had devoured, eagerly anticipating the next 12.

Both passages say essentially the same thing; however, the second passage is much more powerful. In this second passage, the author shows the reader what is happening, allowing the reader to visualize, smell, feel, and hear the scene, whereas in the first passage, the author is merely reporting to the reader what happened.

In order to write a more powerful essay, employ scenework; your reader will find reading your essay a much more rewarding experience.