Monday, March 17, 2014

Making Humorous Use of the Carpe Diem Theme

Having discussed the theme of carpe diem ("seize the day") in literature with my middle school and high school students, they recognized this concept immediately in this poem I found posted on Facebook, "Dust If You Must," by Rose Milligan. The full poem appears  below.

          So after reading and discussing the poem--and giggling with morbid enthusiasm over the final stanza, which some didn't fully understand at first--I asked them to use the poem as the basis for a story with the "seize the day" theme. (In case you can't read the last stanza clearly, it reads: "Dust if you must,  but bear in mind,/ Old age will come and it's not kind,/ And when you go--and go you must,/ You, yourself, will make more dust.") I created teams to collaborate and suggested that they write about an obsessively clean or orderly person who learns what really matters in life from another person, who quotes this poem to her/him. To my surprise, a couple of them nodded, saying, "Oh, you mean an OCD person, right?" Either these preteens are psychologists-in-training or authors-in-the-making. I vote for the latter, especially after reading this story that evolved from a collaboration by K.E. and S.V., two middle-school girls.

     "Wanna go to the movie, Anna?" Roxy asked, though she already knew the answer.

     "What? Oh, no. I'm starting on the social studies project," Anna answered, barely looking up from the piles of papers put in neat stacks on her desk.

     "Um…you mean the one that's going to be assigned in a week?" Roxy raised her eyebrow.

     "I know, I know. I should have started it LAST week," Anna muttered, ashamed.

     "We didn't even know it existed until today!" Roxy grumbled. "Cut loose would you? Carpe diem!"

     Anna sighed, not wanting to step on Roxy's leather-booted toes. Anna had adjusted to Roxy's obnoxious, oh-god-let's-do-this attitude, but it still interfered with her "snobby, perfectionist life." As Anna contemplated the similarities between Japan and China, Roxy rolled her eyes. "Come on, Anna! You don't have to start right now!"

     "Yes I do! Do you know how embarrassing it would be if I got a 100%?" Anna shuddered, just thinking about it. Roxy sighed. She had heard enough about Anna's "above hundred percentage." 

     "Fine, Anna. Call me when you decide to stop throwing away your life. I have one word for you. YOLO!" Roxy muttered. As she was walking away, Anna stopped her. 

     "Stop! You're about to step on the place I'm about to put my backpack on. You don't want me having a dirty backpack?"

     "Oh my god, you're so pretentious!" Roxy stormed out. Anna didn't know where she was going, though, since class was just about to start.

     Roxy saw the teacher walk in and she stormed back towards Anna and sat down next to her. Roxy slumped down in her seat.

     A few moments later while the teacher was giving a lesson about geometric shapes, a note landed on Anna's desk from the direction of Roxy.

     "Dust if you must, but bear in mind,
      Old age will come and it's not kind. --Rose Milligan"

     "What's that supposed to mean? I'm not even dusting right now! Dusting's from 2:00 to 3:00. She should know this! And I'm not that old! I'm only 13. Hmph. I'm not wasting my life. Just because I never do extracurricular activities, or have fun, or…"

The End


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Revealing a Character's Depth Through an Intentionally Phony Tone: Kirsten Smith's Poetry as a Prompt

          People don't always mean what they say--or how they say it. Sometimes, to understand each other, we have to interpret the meaning behind the other's words, to understand that one's tone may not reflect the true feelings behind the words. How often do we hear people say, "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it that way!" And how often do we forgive those people, understanding that their intentions were good, even if their tone seemed harsh? We may even soften toward someone whom we know is trying to sound tougher or colder than he feels, because we know enough about that person to detect and sympathize with his need to cover up painful emotions.

          In writing fiction and poetry, we can manipulate tone to direct how our readers feel and respond to our characters. Sometimes, we might imbue a character's voice with a tone that intentionally belies his/her words so that readers can relish figuring out some truth about the character, without our merely telling them. This technique engages readers more fully and enables them to experience those "aha" moments when they notice clues that subtly reveal depth of character via description, action, and dialogue ("D.A.D."--my mnemonic device for painting vivid word pictures).

          Kirsten Smith, author of the poignant YA novel-in-verse The Geography of Girlhood, illustrates this technique of using tone to belie sentiments and simultaneously reveal character in the poem, "For the Ice-Skater He Loves." Writing in first person, as a girl whose younger stepbrother has revealed his first love to her, she says, "It's not like I care about him,/ in fact, he drives me crazy/ with his stories about you…." She then berates him in the poem--"He's not much to look at"--while sneaking in some of his endearing qualities in a curmudgeonly way: "but he's got shiny hair and/ sometimes he smells like cinnamon,/ and yesterday, he…bought me a pair of really ugly earrings/ that are kind of cute." The poem concludes with a tough-girl tone, threatening that "if you hurt him," she will fill the girl's locker with hate notes, snag her tutu, tamper with her blades, or poison her cocoa. The poet has masterfully manipulated the narrator's tone in a way that reveals it as the girl's cover for her fondness toward this stepbrother, a fondness which she seems to have realized in the midst of her critique of the girl of his dreams. As a reader, I found this revelation of her character endearing.

          I presented Smith's poem to a ninth-grade boy student, and then posed it as a prompt for his own poem to illustrate a tone that belies loosely hidden feelings, subtly revealed. Here is what B.C. came up with, and I found his emulation and understanding spot on! By the way, he does not have a brother, and is an only child, which makes this even more touching.

My Useless Brother
By B. C. (9th grade)

So you’re the bully.
The one who’s been
terrorizing my stupid little brother.
I mean, I get why you would.
He’s cocky, annoying and useless,
bad at sports,
and even laughs at his own jokes
I mean, he’s also nice,
cares about people,
and can make a killer sandwich.
But if you hurt him anymore,
I’ll rip your precious football jersey,
I’ll break your football catching hands,
I’ll make you give yourself a wedgie.
These aren’t just threats.
They’re promises.

IF YOU ENJOYED B.C.'s poem, please leave a comment!