Half Mystery, Half Meaning
by Emily Bedard, Roosevelt High School
When schedule changes found me at my Roosevelt High WITS post on the last day before a recent school break, I decided to flip my usual teaching structure. Typically, I start with the playful stuff and work toward the more substantive. On this day, I thought I’d do the reverse to accommodate the general entropy that always starts to take over when vacation is within smelling distance.
Borrowing from a former WITS colleague Jourdan Keith, I started class by feeding the students a Langston Hughes poem called “Luck” one line at a time. After each line, the students had to keep the poem going with their own words, ideas, and images until I threw out a new one. Then they had to weave the new line in and continue writing. The exercise is fun because it keeps the writers on their toes, but it is also fruitful because it asks that they create their own map of thought connecting one Hughes line to the next. Those maps are never alike and are always interesting for both writer and reader.
Here are the opening Hughes lines:
Sometimes a crumb falls
From the tables of joy
And here is a piece by a writer named Galen, just one of dozens of interesting student interpretations from those classes:
Sometimes a crumb falls
And my dog eats it
And she pukes
For the third time that day
And my parents are yelling
At my brothers, at me
The house is in chaos
And I go to my room to hide
If I stay out of the way maybe they’ll forget
So I decide not to tell them about the puke
From the tables of joy at school
I fall all the way
All the way
All the way home
What I love about this piece—aside from its remarkable ability to actually make me want to read about dog vomit—is that between the two Hughes lines, it takes some big, swinging risks. I picture a sort of orangutan’s motion in the thinking: A firm but slender handhold, a bold sweep over a deep drop, and another firm but slender handhold.
It takes bravery to write the way an orangutan moves through the treetops, and it takes something else. That something else is a willingness, maybe even a compulsion of sorts, to dwell in a place that is half meaning and half mystery. This may be the place where all successful art stems from, but the great thing about high school sophomores is that they have this quality in spades. They spend 24 hours a day penduluming between meaning and mystery. I’m remember the mix having its downsides when I was actually living it, but great writing is often a happy byproduct. Teaching a student who is in this space is like watching a masterful dart-thrower whose darts light themselves on fire mid-air. You never quite know what you’ll end up with, but you know you’re not going to be bored.
Maybe even more rewardingly, my Roosevelt students seem to recognize through their writing that a messy blend of meaning and mystery is what other parts of life are about, too. And this is win for complexity, which is a win for everyone. Even the game we played during the last half of class that sunny winter day was better because of it. A variation on the old party standard Telephone, the game asks players to alternate between illustrating a line of text and drawing a picture for a caption. Each student sees only the writing or artwork of the person immediately preceding in play, so the end results often take some hilarious and compelling turns.
One student, for example, drew a picture to illustrate the line “That was the day I learned to levitate my lunch.” When the next person in the group looked at his drawing without the original caption, she wrote below it, “My mother closed her eyes and stayed away, so I turned my fury on the sandwich.” Now who doesn’t want to read whatever is going to come after that?