June 2, 2009 / Write Away

We read what we sow

Written by Donna Skates

Staffs should cultivate new ideas to avoid wilting yearbook copy

When we were studying the epigrams of Alexander Pope last month, I told my English 12 students to ask their parents to share with them any popular sayings or words of wisdom they had known while growing up. One student came back with “You read what you sow.” After laughing a bit, I started to realize that in the world of yearbook, this misstatement actually made sense.

We assign stories, we coach, we make students write and rewrite, but if we are not ever so vigilant, the stories all begin to sound the same after a while. I’ll never forget the year the underground newspaper at our school published this parody of a yearbook story.

East Students Experience Autumn
by Johnny Heyivegotanarticleduetomorrow Every year, the autumn season brings many new things to East students. The temperature falls in autumn, and weather is often cold. Senior Bill Boring said, “I don’t like cold weather.” Another thing that happens in the fall is that the leaves turn different colors. Sophomore Jim Wordstrength said, “I like it when the leaves turn yellow and red.” A popular pastime among East students in the fall is wearing clothes. Freshman Nan Nothingtosay said, “All my friends wear clothes, and so do I.” Other students occasionally sleep during the autumn months. Senior Sam SureIcangiveyouaquote said, “I enjoy sleeping, especially at night.” Breathing air is enjoying quite a popularity among some students. Sophomore Jane Justsaywhatyouwantandputmynameonit said, “Nowadays, it seems like almost everyone is breathing air here at East.” However, some students do things before, during, and after the fall season. Vice principal Carl Canttheyeversayanythingniceaboutadministrators said, “Most students seem to do things all year long.”

I winced at the criticism, but I had to agree that many of our articles sounded just like that – the old quote-transition-quote routine. It was time to till the garden, add a little fertilizer, plant some new seeds.

Many of those new seeds came straight from classroom assignments. One was a journal from Hilary Gedman. Hilary had been a packrat for years, and her room was a mess, overflowing with mementos, plus everything that a teenager needs for day-to-day existence. For an English assignment about Thoreau, she had decided to simplify her life by cleaning her room and getting rid of unnecessary items. She had chosen a diary for her genre and we pulled an excerpt from it.

Day 3, Tuesday
Well, today was the big day. It was time to conquer the big walk-in closet (not that I could walk in it or anything). I have stuff in there from when I was a baby, a kid, and a teenager. My mom said that I should be careful of what I throw away. I might want it when I’m an adult. But what am I going to do with a picture I painted in kindergarten when I’m 30? My philosophy for today: keep anything for backpacking or that I’ve used in the last year. The rest is either nice enough to be given to the Goodwill, or tossed in the garbage. That included the homework from fifth to tenth grade, the twenty pairs of old running shoes, and the art kits from elementary school. Today I filled three bags with garbage and three for Goodwill (not including the gum ball machine I found on my closet floor. Don’t ask me where that came from). Pinned up on my wall was a flower Alexis [her friend who had committed suicide] had made for me. Back then, we were really good friends. I don’t know what to do with the flower. Should I toss it? Should I give it to her mom? Should I keep it as a special memory of her? Well, I think I’ll stop now before I really start crying. It won’t be the first time today….

Then there are those times that, out of frustration or exhaustion, the seeds do not get planted. At the end of a very long day, when I just wanted to be in a room all by myself, one of my former students brought in her college narrative. When she asked me if I would like to read it, I thought of a scene from “Liar Liar.” If I had said what was really on my mind, I would have been fired, so I said, “Of course, I’d love to.” The narrative was about her struggle between her love of science and journalism.

What dreams may come…
by Heather Long The compounds floated around in my head. I lay with my eyes closed, quilt up to my chin, waiting for sleep to comfort me, but the chemical formulas continued their dance through my mind, picking at my brain, teasing me. Then, in an instant, they came together and all was clear. Studying chemistry is a 24-hour experience. Most days, I wondered why on earth I put up with the madness. It is an insanely difficult subject, approaching the point of masochism. Then came Saturday. I rocked back and forth. Sitting in the hospital nursery. Back and forth. Four hours of back and forth, a sleeping infant in my arms. The names were different, the little faces the same, all newborns barely a day old. They never knew me. Only a lowly hospital volunteer, I was but a brief flash in their memory. But I remember them. They were why the study of chemistry mattered to me. Someday I will be a doctor. The words floated around in my head. I lay with my eyes closed, quilt up to my chin, waiting for sleep to comfort me. The turns of phrases, slips of meaning continued their dance through my consciousness, picking at my brain, teasing me. Then, in an instant they came together and all was clear. Writing a newspaper story is a 24-hour experience. Most days, I wondered why on earth I put up with the madness. It is an insanely complicated journey from a single sentence to a written masterpiece. Then came Saturday. I rocked back and forth. Sitting in the newsroom. Back and forth. Four hours of back and forth, a story idea unfolding in my mind. The headlines were all different, the process the same, all budding ideas for a new story. The products were lasting. Already a writer for the local newspaper, I had written stories that were preserved in print. And I remember them. They were why the grueling process of writing mattered at all to me. Already I am a journalist. My life and interests are a study in contrasts. A volunteer at the hospital, I envision my name on a lab coat with the letters MD behind it…. A writer for the local newspaper, I envision my byline at the top of award-winning stories…. When I am torn as to which career to pursue, I think of an Emory doctor and poet, John Stone: “Many physicians have been writers…. For me, medicine and poetry come from the same place: the human encounter, the living of a life. After all, what each of us tells our physician when we are seen for a check-up is, in some respects, a short story. And a person’s short stories taken together, over time, constitute a truly wondrous and highly individualistic ‘novel.’ The physician-poet hopes to transmute the ‘stories’ that he hears into art.” My dream is that someday at the top of an award-winning story, I will see my byline with the letters MD behind it.

What a great idea for a feature article in any section. In the Academics section, the focus could be almost anything: how seemingly different academic pursuits coincide, how students struggle with their futures, how seniors spend their time writing college essays. In the People section, it could simply be the story of one student’s diverse interests.

But if I had been an adviser this year, I would have encouraged my editors to invent a new section because I am so tired of every yearbook having the same old sections. How about a section on dreams? The dreams in this section could be diverse: a student’s recurring dream or nightmare, hopes and dreams students had as children that did or did not come true, dreams that parents have for their children, and then Heather’s dream for her future.

If you think a personal narrative covers too few students, then start the article with a Q & A. Give several people’s opinions on their future careers, on the college essay, etc. Or do a sidebar with other students’ pictures and statements.

In my last year of advising, I finally had an epiphany. For a change of pace, it is really easy to find something a student has written for an interesting assignment and then build a spread around that. Last month, as my English 12 students read an excerpt from James Joyce’s “A Portrait of an Artist,” I asked the students to do what Joyce’s character, Stephen Dedalus, had done as he tried to see himself in relationship to the universe, but I asked them to try to be creative, to be specific, to tell me in a few words just who they were. In the book, Stephen Dedalus compiled this list.

  • Stephen Dedalus
  • Class of Elements
  • Clongowes Wood College
  • Sallins
  • County Kildare
  • Ireland
  • Europe
  • The World
  • The Universe

My student, Kevin Kobylinski, submitted this one.

  • Kevin Kobylinski
  • Works at Michaels
  • Runs with his dog Ralph
  • Feeds his lizards crickets and watches until they’ve hunted them all down and swallowed them
  • Drives his blue Reliant happily and proudly
  • Picks his nose when no one’s around

Call me crazy, but I like Kevin’s better. Something like this could be used in the Academics section as a series of interesting assignments. It could also be used in the People section, or in a new “I Am” section, showing the diversity in the school. I would have the students look for variety: essays, narratives, diaries, poems, artwork, photography, and childhood memories. The stories could be issues that are minor or momentous. I can see some of the endless possibilities now: I am a perfectionist, I am a worrier, I am a clown, I am a good friend, I am a lover, I am a teacher, I am an artist, I am a brother, I am finished.

Clearly, we read what we sow.

Donna Skates