by Jessica Lahey
The most wonderful thing happened to me today. A student asked a question, and I did not know the answer.
Don’t misunderstand – I am at a loss for answers all the time. Every day, I affix a new index card to the front of my plan book so I will have a place to write down the all questions I need to look up. Tonight, for example, I have to look up the etymology of the word “hypocrite” (Greek, hypokrites, stage actor, pretender, dissembler), find out why Castor and Pollux wear skull caps (remnants of their hatching – long story, involves their father Zeus in the form of a swan), and whether the limerick ever achieved high scholarly status (not really). The last one on my note card, though…it’s a doozy.
There I was, in the middle of a poetry lesson in my seventh grade English class. We were talking about clichés – cliché similes and metaphors, specifically. If a poet were to write that someone is as white as a ghost or meaner than a junkyard dog, readers will understand, but some clichés are so familiar, they don’t mean much anymore. They don’t stop the reader in his tracks or offer up a new way of looking at something.
But, when a writer reports that “purple is like blue, blooming” or that the ladies were “like soft tea cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum,” I can see that dark blue blooming into purple and the cloying heat of a Maycomb Sunday afternoon.
And then, there it was:
“If phrases can be cliché because they are so overused, why aren’t stories like the journey of the hero cliché, too?”
First of all, HALLELUJAH. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Haleleeeeeeeluuujah. What an awesome question. Once my shower of lavish praise ended, however, the room grew very quiet.
Where are Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell when I need them? Flitting about on their angel wings, interpreting Steve Jobs’ dreams, no doubt.
We all thought about the question for a while. They looked at me to see what I would say; I looked at them to see what they would say. Class went on like that for a while. I have some really great students, kids who understand that quiet is not merely something to be filled up.
Finally, a girl – one who rarely speaks up in class – raised her hand. She offered that maybe, if the journey is a little different each time, it’s still exciting to us. Another girl agreed - Bilbo is after the booty in Smaug’s cave, Pip seeks Estella and his expectations, Dorothy has to reveal the man behind the curtain – it’s all the same story, in the end. And yet we keep reading because the details are different.
It was about time for class to end, so I wrote “journey=cliché?” on my index card, and promised to think about it overnight and get back to them.
And then, as they filed out of the room, a student offered up the most lovely cliché I’ve ever heard: “Maybe it’s because the journey is the important part, not the destination. That’s why we keep reading.”
Jessica Potts Lahey is a teacher of English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy, an independent Core Knowledge K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jessica’s blog on middle school education, Coming of Age in the Middle, can be found at http://jessicalahey.com.