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Rant #349
(published September 27, 2007)
Grinding It Out For High School Kids
by Tony R. Rodriguez

[Monday, March 26th, 2007]

Helena and I leave our place around six thirty AM. I turn on the stereo and listen to a bit of news radio. The talking points discussion focuses on the fifteen British sailors who were recently taken in as hostages by Iran — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims that these sailors were trespassing in Iranian waters on March 23rd, though the navigational equipment on the British vessel informed the sailors otherwise. People in the West are calling this hostage debacle an act of war.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants Prime Minister Tony Blair to admit Britain's guilt.

Tony Blair maintains that the fifteen sailors were not in Iranian waters, but in Iraqi waters, and he stresses the importance of freeing these innocent servicemen.

Game time:

The West will wait for Iran's next move, commanding it be done soon.

The Middle East will lay down their best cards and see if the West will flex its strength.

I shake my head in disgust.

I yawn and stretch and think about the day to come. I begin to search within to find that there's a slight bit of nervousness dwelling. I've done readings and workshops before, but there's an ominous feeling taking hold of me. I tell myself: It's just high school. They're just teenagers. It's America's future taking time out to listen to what you have to say. They'll appreciate being out of class. They'll appreciate and support a Newark Memorial graduate.

All will be fine.

I'm fully prepared.

It seems I've forgotten a lunch. We stop by a Safeway en route to the high school. I buy a hefty sandwich, and because it's quite huge I split it with Helena so she doesn't have to buy a lunch later. We arrive at the high school around seven o'clock, and it seems no one is in the main office when I enter. A passerby tells me the secretaries don't arrive until seven fifteen. I walk back to the car and tell Helena we have to wait a bit. She becomes frustrated and complains that she's just going to leave me here with all my equipment. I brush off her anxiety with deep breaths that are barely discernible. There's no chance of me standing outside alone with all my equipment for fifteen minutes. It's cold. I'm a bit tense. Helena can wait a bit longer. Waiting fifteen more minutes will not affect her morning.

And I think to myself, This is why I need to buy a new car.

From the distance I see Mr. Oak walking toward the main office. Mr. Oak's the English teacher who had invited me to come and do a reading/workshop with the kids. He's a hip guy with a first-rate sense of quality literature. Helena stays in the car as I walk up to him, exchange a few pleasantries, and return to the main office. I sign-in as Mr. Oak asks a maintenance person to unlock the library. As soon as the maintenance man does, I empty the SUV of all my equipment with the assistance of Helena. A warm kiss later, I say adieu to Helena and tell her to pick me up at three fifteen sharp. She smiles in agreement and says to have fun.

Once in the library I come to appreciate the future certainty of my day's pursuit. I'll be responsible for hosting a forty-seven minute workshop during each period of the day. I'll be reading and lecturing to three different English classes per period, that's about ninety students each round. Since there are six periods in a regular school day, there'll be around five hundred forty students, from freshmen to seniors, who will have heard my reading/workshop by the day's end. These high schoolers will either be inspired by it, loath it entirely or careless about it either way.

I begin setting up my projection screen fifteen feet in front of the audience, so it faces forty-five seats on each side of a pathway, respectfully giving the audience a total number of ninety. There's a podium against the library wall, which I carefully drag and place a few feet next to the screen. I unfold a mini-table and place it ten feet in front of the screen. Here, I set-up my InFocus projector, laptop, and computer speakers, carefully running an extension cord from under the table to the adjacent wall. Between the speakers I place a bookstand to hold Simplicity Regurgitated: Poems and Shorts, along with some business cards for any interested students. Once I inspect all the connections, I do a quick dry run to make sure everything's in place.

And I'm ready to go.

Mr. Oak tells me that he's going to run to his classroom to do a few things. The clock on the wall says the first session will begin in about twenty minutes. I walk around the library and see my first novel, The Disappearance and the Slow Awakening, displayed at the library check-out counter. I wonder if anyone will bother to read it. I walk up and down the various isles for a while until I find myself near the projection screen. With patience and reflection, I calm myself:

I clear my head.

I slowly breathe in and out.

I listen to my palpitating heart.

I whisper a little prayer to Christ Jesus.

I open my eyes and sit on a nearby couch that faces ninety seats.

Mr. Oak returns and says, "So, the first bell's gonna ring in about two minutes. The classes should be arriving soon. I have a note on my door to remind the students that we're meeting in the library."

I nod.

"So, would you like me to introduce you?"

I reply, "Yeah, that would be perfect."

Some students from Mr. Oak's class begin entering the library. A few find a seat in the back. Mr. Oak quickly tells them that his class is sitting in the front left section of the audience. The kids moan and trudge toward the chairs in the front left. The first bell goes off and more students come streaming in. Some make their way to the front while others sit in the back. Again, Mr. Oak ushers his students to the front left. I walk up and down a row of fiction to steady myself, eyeing a copy of The Once and Future King by T.H. White. The tardy bell rings. I ask Mr. Oak if Newark Memorial starts the day off with a school-wide "Pledge of Allegiance." He raises his eye brows and shakes his head in a discerning manner. I suppose Newark Memorial has since lost that great tradition. We wait a few minutes since Mr. Oak's students are the only ones here in attendance.

A few more minutes go by.

"I'm gonna find out what's going on," Mr. Oak says to me with a perturbed look.

He leaps onto a library computer and clicks the mouse frantically, his eyes darting back and forth across the screen. He leaves the computer and begins pacing the library entrance. His students remain seated and socialize about a range of things kids their ages talk about.

A few more minutes go by.

"I don't know where the classes are," Mr. Oak says to me. He asks a student to run down to the classrooms of the teachers who've signed-up for the period one session and tell them that the workshop is starting. I look at the clock on the wall and I've already lost ten minutes of my lecture time. A couple minutes later, both classes enter the library in a ruckus of unsavory conduct. I gather the feeling that this may be a hassle for the students. Mr. Oak quiets them down, explains that today's lecture will focus on flash fiction and personifying one's narration, and then he introduces me with pleasant words that immediately humble my consciousness. Unexpectedly, I'm greeted with an exciting round of applauds.

I get right to it by reading "The Man and the Serpent," which is only around one hundred fifty words in length, an ideal example of flash fiction. I ask the audience if anyone knows of the writer. I hint that the writer was Greek. A slave. A man famous for his stories "The Tortoise and the Hare" and "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." A few guesses aside, I tell them it was written by Aesop over two thousand six hundred years ago. I highlight that Aesop is considered by many as the patriarch of flash fiction writing. Though it's short, we discuss whether or not flash fiction can still carry weight. I form an analogy of flash fiction being regarded as the "Commercial of Literature." I show the classes a video clip of the Budweiser Frogs of late 90's commercial fame, the same trio that hit it big during Super Bowl XXIX with their catchy "Bud . . . " "Wies . . . " "Er" lines. The students and the teachers attending all appear highly familiar with these old commercial ads. The kids agree that commercials get people talking. They cite popular commercials of today: The Geico car insurance commercials that poke fun of un-evolved cavemen; the pillaging Vikings of the Capital One commercials who try to maintain modern day jobs; the Jack In The Box commercials; the Comcast Cable commercials. The students all recognize that these short bits still have the potential to endure. Therefore, flash fiction, the Commercial of Literature, has the ability to endure as well, just like the great works of Aesop.

Next, we impose the idea of writing flash fiction, but with a kaleidoscope twist to it. I challenge them to personify their narrative instead of following the traditional element of having their narrator be human. I give examples of how creative the story would be if the narrator were not human, but instead an animal or inanimate object. I pose some examples:

Imagine reading a piece of flash fiction about a dysfunctional family from the perspective of a goldfish. This abstract narrator informs the reader of the family problems it witnesses from inside an algae-infested bowl.

Think about reading a short story of a little child who watches her mother and father viciously argue and retreat into their bedroom, fiercely slamming their door in front of the little child so the child wouldn't be able to see what's happening on the other end. Since the child can only hear what's happening, wouldn't it be clever to have the door be the narrator and fully illustrate what exactly happens on the other side?

A self-centered teenage girl spends hours upon hours in the bathroom, vainly speaking to herself in the mirror about heartthrob boys and annoying friends and money she's stolen from her parents who make her days miserable. Would it not be so adept to read a piece of short fiction that highlights the teenager's life from the perspective of the bathroom mirror?

And I give more examples:

The story of a drunken mother coming home from the dive bar, the narrator being her car.

The story of a musician bound for greatness, the narrator being his guitar.

The story of a promiscuous college girl, the narrator being her bed.

I emphasize this point further by taking a moment to read "multiple scars," a short story taken from Simplicity Regurgitated: Poems and Shorts. I begin reading with a heavy voice, and the audience attentively listens and reacts to the dichotomy of a bitter married couple and a family cat. My words are accompanied with visuals from my slideshow, each slide correlating to the heartfelt lexis that spills from my lips. I finish reading to find myself surrounded by an eerie silence. There's a slight pause that makes me uneasy. Then, a humble round of applauds blossoms a moment later, welcomingly soothing my troubled nerves. I point out that the narration of "multiple scars" has been personified by having the family cat as the storyteller. I indicate that throughout the story the cat always remained a cat, never speaking to the characters the way animals do in fables, nor did the cat ever do the impossible with its mannerisms. The only difference was that the cat was the storyteller. The narrator was not a conventional human.

From here, I enter into the workshop portion of the lecture, where I invite the students to begin composing their own pieces of flash fiction whose narration will be personified. We begin by selecting an animal or inanimate object that will be our story's narrator. In order to provide them with ideas, I show the students slides of cars and animals and surf boards and musical instruments and trees and historic landmarks and whatever else may capture their interest. Some students know exactly what the narrator will be, while others still need more time. I project a music video of the song "Rauol" by The Automatic. I inform them that by the time the video ends, they should be prepared to share what they've selected as their narrator. I roam from student to student while the video plays, often hearing of clever narrators yet to be born. Though I find The Automatic to be fashionably raw musicians, it seems most of the crowd could do without them, so I stop the video midway.

With a hopeful smile, I ask, "Who'd like to share what their narrator will be?"

"I'm going to write a story whose narrator will be a cell phone."

We all clap.

"I play in a band, so the narrator in my story will be my bass guitar."

We all clap.

"Mine will be my shoe. I run track and I'd like to know what it has to say."

We all clap.

We move on to selecting a setting for our writing piece. I show a slide of rooms within a home. I show a slide of a goldfish bowl. Of a birdcage. A slide of a park. A slide of an ocean wave. Slide of an office. Of a theme park. Some students choose their setting instantly. I run through the same procedure of projecting a music video, this time of the song "12:51" by The Strokes. I wander from student to student. Creative idea to creative idea. I cut the video short and begin sharing a few examples of what I've heard. Some students have their setting be traditional by selecting it to be inside a home, a park or a classroom. Others select something of the abstract nature by having their setting be inside a pant pocket or inside a dog kennel.

Next, we select a conflict.

I show slides that include failed celebrity marriages and job losses and arrests and people cheating. The students get right to discovering their story's conflict while I project a Saturday Night Live sketch by Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell. The two SNL madmen hilariously rap an ode dedicated to the fantasy film The Chronicles of Narnia. The kids seem to love it, though I cut the video short. Students share their selected conflicts: Drug addiction, family argument, cheating on a girlfriend, theft, sexually transmitted infection, and so on.

I conclude the lecture with a public challenge to have these students try new motifs in narration. I know that some will. Others will be forever regurgitating what they've learned in grade school, which is fine in its own right.

With the exception of period five, the period directly after lunch, the day continues in this congenial fashion. Period five seemed to be filled with hecklers, burn-outs and academically-challenged thinkers. Overall, I wouldn't say I consider my day at Newark Memorial High a success, more so an opportunity fulfilled. Sometimes one can only hope for an opportunity — and Mr. Oak and the participating members of the English department gave me just that.

Helena picks me up at three forty-five. I immediately turn on 560 AM and listen to the current news on the fifteen British sailors taken in by Iran. Helena tells me that she's sorry she's late, that she's been frantically running around town.

And I think to myself, Wouldn't it be interesting to read the story of Helena and her after school business from the perspective of her SUV?

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