Saturday, May 19, 2012

Searching for Clues

I read a good essay yesterday. Written by one of my students, a young man off to U. W. - Madison this fall. Bright kid. Engaging personality. Well- spoken. He represents our school district very well. A young person like him helps me feel hopeful.

So anyway he wrote a "definition essay." This simply means that each student finds a word, or a small phrase, and chases its meaning. One could focus on the history of a word, or the etymology, or the personal connection, or maybe even the manipulation of the word. They have lots of freedom to choose the subject ... and sneakily it teaches (reinforces) an important technique of good writers -- defining the argument/subject of the essay. It is always one of my favorite essays to read and to teach.

However what moved me about his essay wasn't so much the words he wrote himself, but instead the words he quoted from his father's friend -- an engineer, born and raised in Tokyo.

He chose "death" as his word, hoping that his investigation would help him come to terms with his grandmother's death. She was a victim of Alzheimer's. The final years of her life were obviously difficult for all -- especially for a young person experiencing the death of someone (or at least someone close) for the first time. Besides speaking to the death of his grandmother, he also wondered how he could feel so ambivalent about losing his grandmother -- especially when during those last few years she was "only a shell of herself." It was obvious, he was searching for clues.

And then he added the story of his father's friend. When asked about death, Peter revealed his eastern (im)mortality in a story:

 "When a tree first takes in the earth, it fears neither wind nor other force because its roots intertwine with the trees closest to it. As it grows, its children intertwine their roots with it, and then its childrens' children do the same, holding the grandfather tree in place amongst its family. For that reason, the tree cannot be uprooted; it cannot be torn from its family. Then when death finally comes for the tree, it slowly fades away, leaving space for new trees to grow, but its roots remain, protecting and anchoring the rest of its family."

A wonderful metaphor. Not only for those left alive, but also for those who have already left. I feel comfort in those words. I know it doesn't quite fit into the Christian way of seeing death and immortality. But for me there is something very permanent -- very secure, and something very lasting about a big old tree. Especially when it is surrounded by a forest full of healthy trees. It leaves me hopeful.

When asked how many family members and friends he has lost, Peter said, "I have never lost a family or a friend. Not a single one. My grandfather and grandmother have passed away, my best friend in school recently died from a severe sickness, and I have seen many people pass into the void, but I have not lost a single one of them."

Again, comforting words -- wise words. Especially as I get a bit older. Especially as I get ready to send my oldest child off to Austria next year. And especially as I watch my seven-year old run around the cul-de-sac. The metaphors resonate and leave me hopeful. And I also believe that through my student's act of writing, he found some solace ... and maybe a wee bit of understanding.


  1. Well written indeed. Thinking, writing, & thinking, I never tired of students willing to stretch their minds....

  2. Thanks! And thanks for reading. I am currently writing curriculum for an AP Language and Composition course new to our high school next year. I wrote the class proposal so it is my baby.

    Looking forward to reading and thinking about some well-written and thoughtful essays.

  3. Lucky you! I never had the privilege of teaching AP as it wasn't available in our rural school. However, I did teach a two hour team teaching class "Humanities" with ou senior English teacher. My son teaches 6 AP classes in Scottsdale though and says it's a wonderful experience....