Monday, January 25, 2016

My English Story

     This is the Narrative With Theme I submitted for English class. The only comment I got was FYI - all the English classes at [School] are called Advanced English. But I also got full credit, by some miracle of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

                                                              Moral Character

    Anyone who does not know the difference between an adjective and an adverb by eighth grade should not be in advanced English.
    It’s not enough for me to score better than 90% of juniors in writing and better than 94% in reading when I take the PSAT in seventh grade. It’s not enough for me to be able to write dialogue perfectly, pick out usage errors most adults miss, and read about four books a week - six, if I’ve been to the public library yesterday and have started binge-reading. I still have to take grade-level English and learn the same material, year after year.
    It is boring as hell.
    I stare at the list of speech parts without seeing it. Beneath my bored-teenager shell, my mind silently rages at whatever cruel creature decided students should be able to take tenth-grade math classes in middle school but couldn’t go above eighth-grade English. This world is prejudiced against the verbally oriented.
    “Adverbs are used to describe...who can tell me?” asks the teacher, as if the inner workings of language are a great mystery. A wordless scream dies somewhere in the general vicinity of my tonsils.
    Some kid in the front eventually ventures, “Verbs?”
    “That’s right,” the teacher declares, approaching the board and scanning the sentences written there from the warm-up as if he needs to find the adverbs for himself before he can ask us about them. Then he turns. “So, what do adverbs usually end with?”
    I tune out the teacher’s droning voice. I need something else to think about, so my mind slinks off to its default - fine-tuning the details of my most recently planned story.
    Five minutes later - and please note that five minutes is an extremely long time to be sitting around listening to teachers go over four different parts of speech you mastered in third grade - the teacher finishes going over the warm-up and starts on the details of our next assignment. At this point, my mind is already submerged in the tale of a girl living in an authoritarian theocracy, and it seems to have no desire whatsoever to leave, so I tune in at occasional intervals to make sure I get the gist. But it rapidly becomes clear that this assignment is too complicated to pay attention to in brief spurts, so I wrench my brain away from the far more interesting activity it is currently engrossed in and force myself to listen (relatively) attentively.
    “...already know what you want to do, you can just get started on your narrative,” the teacher is saying.
    Finally! A story - what I do best. Maybe I can finally squeeze out a piece of writing that comes remotely close to my usual standard of writing. Of course, my essay comparing three retellings of The Twelve Dancing Princesses was satisfactory, as was my analysis of Song of the Shieldwall for figurative language from seventh grade, but I wrote those at home. School assignments are so full of suffocating rubrics: Develop this idea in that paragraph. Include this many quotes to Support Your Answer. Conclude this way.
    Be creative, as long as you do it on our terms.
    “I’m passing out plot charts so you can map your stories. These need to be completed before you start writing,” continues the teacher.
    Wait. What?
    I should have known it was too good to be true. In the past, I’ve always found ways to evade plot charts - typically by writing the story, and then filling out the plot chart. It’s going to be harder this time, I suspect.
    They’re so rigid, so unnatural. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that you can’t force a story. You have to let it evolve naturally. If you plan too much, you’ll have to turn away inspiration when it comes, so you can stick to the plan. I hate how confining plot charts are.
    The boy in front of me hands one to me. I take it like it’s a dead animal.
    “These have to be done by Wednesday,” the teacher informs us. “But for now, put those away. We’re going to look at punctuating dialogue.”
    My head sinks slowly to my desk.
    I agonize over my sad, sorry excuse for a life, in true teenager fashion, while the teacher calls up a bunch of sentences on the board.
    I am making apple pie said the girl
    Spencer asked are you coming to the Christmas party
    I stare at them, unimpressed.
    “What do we need to do to start?” the teacher asks, in a fake I have no idea how to deal with these words, so please, middle-schoolers, help me voice. “Grace?”
    I snap to attention. “Put quotation marks around ‘I am making apple pie’ and ‘are you coming to-’”
    “Don’t do them all at once,” he interrupts. “Let’s take this one part at a time. So you said put quotation marks around…?”
    My eyes flutter briefly closed. “‘I am making apple pie.’”
    “Right!” the teacher exclaims, as if I’ve just figured out the answer to life, the universe, and everything (42).
    That’s the thing. Language isn’t that hard. Words aren’t a great mystery. At least not for me. I just understand words - the subtlest differences between one word and another. I know how they’re used in stories, like how the word softly almost means quietly, but not quite, because softly has an extra gentleness. It’s not something I can explain, I just know. I’ve absorbed them, I guess, from reading so much. It’s the same way I intuitively know how to write dialogue, how to use metaphors, even before I was taught.
    I don’t think anyone else understands that.
    Fifteen merciless minutes later, the bell rings, and I flee in desperation.
    “How was school?” my mom asks cheerfully when I step through the front door.
    I say the only thing on my mind: “English sucks.”
    A look of worry darts across her face. “I’m sorry. What are you doing in English?”
    “Parts of speech,” I groan, flopping dramatically onto the couch. “For about the seven hundred seventy-seventh time.”
    She grimaces sympathetically. “Still? Aren’t you supposed to be in advanced English?”
    “That’s what I said.” Alas, I was the only person around I could say it to without the high risk of receiving a lunch detention.
    “Maybe just ask your teacher how long you’re going to be doing this for,” she suggests. “Tell him you feel you already know this stuff.”
    “He’ll just say ‘You can always get better.’” Bile rises in my throat at the thought of his favorite saying. “I wish I could tell him that I was reading in preschool.”
    “You could. Whether he’d believe you is another story.”
    “True.” I wander over to my bag of leftover Halloween candy. Supplies are getting low, but I think I’m entitled to a Reese’s cup today.
    “Well, how was the rest of your day?”
    I shrug. “About normal. We got a new piece in orchestra, all the other girls in my gym class thought the volleyball would bite them if they let it get too close, and algebra was incredibly dull.” I take my first bite of chocolate, savoring the salty sweetness. “Science was fun, at least.”
    Two chocolates later, I begin the heinously complicated task of removing my binder from the stubborn jaws of my backpack, and, grunting with triumph, heave it onto the dining room table. I flip through the frayed mess of papers that fills the vast majority of my binder until I find and remove the loathsome plot chart.
    Where to begin? I thought I wanted to get this over with quickly, but now I’m not so sure.
    I think the teacher told us we had to start with the moral. He clings stubbornly to the belief that every story in existence has a moral, which I think is kind of crazy. One day, he gave us a warm-up in which we were supposed to identify the moral of our favorite book or movie from our early childhood.
    To prove my point, I said that I really liked the book Goodnight Moon when I was little and that it didn’t have a moral. The teacher asked me what I thought the author’s message to the reader was, to which I replied, “‘Go to sleep’?”
    He then informed me that I was being really immature and obviously would not do well in the following unit. The next day, when I asked him what he thought the message of Goodnight Moon was, he said he didn’t know.
    Go figure.
    [Yes, you can see that I didn't incorporate any real-life experiences into this story.]
    Seriously, what is the moral of, I don’t know, Cinderella? Spend your lifetime taking crap from an abusive stepparent, and some chick with a wand will eventually solve all your problems for you?
    Or Sleeping Beauty? What in the world is the moral of Sleeping Beauty?!
    Struck by a sudden inspiration, I write in the blank next to Moral: Not all stories have morals.
    Now, how to set about proving my point?
    Once I decide what I want to write, I head straight down to the computer and get started. My fingers fly over the keyboard as satisfying blocks of text stack neatly on the screen. Once I finish, I edit here and there, refining my language, fixing the occasional typo, and finally bringing down the Great Plot Chart of Wretchedness to fill out.
    There. Narrative done, right off the bat, and not even the plot chart could thwart this story. Maybe my English teacher will finally see what I mean - and that I can write.
    Two days pass in an infinity of solving for x, squabbling with violists, recording moon observations, and interactively studying torts. Then the rough drafts of our narratives are due in English, and I proudly submit mine, waiting eagerly for judgment.
    The moment of excitement doesn’t last long, though, because it turns out the teacher won’t read them until he gets home, and we’re learning “new” ways to punctuate dialogue.
    All. Blasted. Period.
    The next day, and the next, prove no more enjoyable. He still hasn’t read them. But now it’s a weekend, so when I come back on Monday, he’s bound to have looked at the stories, and then I’ll get some critique.
    Sure enough, on Monday, as soon as I step into the room, he says, “Grace, could I have a word, please?”
    I’m the first one in, so no one else has to witness this. He leads me to the back of the room, where he opens a laptop that’s been sitting on the desk to reveal the familiar pages of my story.
    “Shall we read this together?”
    “If you want.” I hope he isn’t going to read it aloud. “Should I-”
    “ it through. You don’t have to say it out loud.”
    So I do.

    Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Emily. Her English teacher told her that every story had a moral, or life lesson, that she could use in reality.
    Then one night, Emily’s mother read her a book of fairy tales. Emily decided she would try to use the morals of the fairy tales to help her survive the cruel world of Middle School.
    When the queen bee, Lily, started teasing Emily about her clothing, Emily remembered how Cinderella coped with mean girls, and how nicely her story ended. So Emily never said anything mean to Lily, no matter how many times she wanted to make a biting comment, and remained a little angel of a girl.
    Then the school dance came up, and Lily told Emily she better not try to put in an appearance because her crush was going to be there. Unbeknownst to Lily, Emily had been crushing on the same boy. But she didn’t say anything to Lily about it.
    However, as fairy godmothers are fictitious creatures and the generosity of parents can only be stretched so far, no one came and gave Emily a beautiful dress, highly impractical dancing shoes, and a private chariot to take her to the school dance.
    Emily’s crush asked Lily out at the dance, which Emily heard all about the next day, and she was heartbroken. But, being too innocent for her own good, Emily stupidly did not lose faith in the moral power of the fairy tales.
    Then, when she accidentally threw her basketball onto the garage roof while shooting hoops, Emily recalled the story The Frog Prince, and called her taller older brother, who, being male, bore an adequate amount of resemblance to a frog, and promised to give him her allowance if he would get her ball down for her.
    Her brother retrieved the ball for Emily. But then Emily remembered that the frog turns into a prince at the end, and as there was no chance of that happening with her brother, she was now set up to fork out twenty dollars with no happy ending in sight.
    Then she recalled how the heroine in Rumpelstiltskin had gotten out of a bad deal, and begged her brother for a second chance. However, it is a well-known fact of life that brothers do not have the same generosity as your typical fairy creature, and her brother told her to get lost.
    Emily’s parents made her pay the twenty dollars she had promised. And Emily learned a valuable lesson: Not all stories have morals.

    “I believe a better moral for this story would be ‘Not all morals can be interpreted literally,” coaxed the teacher.
    “Or ‘If you try to read a moral into a story that doesn’t have one, disaster will strike’,” I reply dryly.
    He pauses. “I’m not so sure that’s an effective moral, because all those fairy tales do have morals.”
    “Like what?”
    “Well, Cinderella is about being kind no matter what,” he begins.
    “That’s my point. That’s what Emily tried doing, and look where it got her. Friendless, miserable, and at the bottom of the social ladder.”
    My teacher frowns. “What about ‘no good deed goes unpunished’, then?”
    “But Emily’s brother did a good deed, and he got paid twenty dollars for it. It would be silly to suggest and then immediately contradict my own moral,” I argue, channeling my inner Daria Morgendorffer.
    “Well,” he responds testily, clearly beginning to lose patience, “I’d like you to change your moral.”
    “I’m sure,” my teacher continues, slipping from snappish to patronizing, “that a smart girl like you can find another moral. And….” He bites his lip. “Maybe get rid of the tension between Emily and Lizzie, or at least...ease up on it a bit.”
    “Lily. And no, it’s a key element of the story. The rivalry between the two girls brings the agonies of middle school to life, illustrates just how sad and friendless Emily is due to her failure to think for herself, and emphasizes the stupidity of being unconditionally kind to people who don’t deserve it.”
    “I’m not sure that’s a life lesson…” He trails off.
    “Look,” I answer tersely, trying to keep my own patience. “If Emily had stood up to Lily, she would have sent the message that she’s not the kind of person who takes crap from shallow, thoughtless jerks, thus saving herself the trouble of being seen as an easy victim. But she didn’t. And that’s where she learns her lesson: In fantasy, passive creatures such as Cinderella can gain happy endings off of nothing more than a stroke of luck, but in reality, you need to stand up for yourself.”
    “Then why don’t you make that your moral?” The bell rings as my teacher presses a hand to his forehead.
    “Not the whole story is about-”
    “I don’t care what you do, but please change your moral,” he interjects, walking to the front of the room.
    The moral of this story is: Not all stories have morals.
Blogger's note:The alternate ending to Grace's story, which I did not include for obvious reasons, was meant to neutralize Snow White (and make fun of health class) and is written below:

     The next day, there was a shooting at Emily's school. Emily took a bullet to the stomach and slowly bled to death. The ugliest boy in the school, who had a secret crush on Emily, crawled over to her, ignoring the gaping bullet wound in his shoulder, and planted a kiss on her cold, dead lips. But, as it was just a kiss and lacked anticoagulant (not to mention chemistry), Emily remained dead. Not only did Emily remain dead, but it turned out she had HIV, so as the boy kissed her bloody lips, he contracted the virus and subsequently died at the age of fourteen.
     No one lived happily ever after. Or lived at all.

1 comment:

  1. "Great Plot Chart of Wretchedness" Perfect.
    Like you, I detested most of my English and writing classes. Not because I don't like writing, not because words aren't fun. But, diagramming a sentence? For two weeks? Gah!
    I love your story, particularly the alternate ending.
    Keep writing. One of these years, I'll be buying your bestsellers.