Food for Thought

by Guest Blogger
February 8th, 2012

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?”

Huh.

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.

5 Comments »

  1. Always with the journey, among English majors. In WWII
    the destination {victory} was the important part, as with the construction of the U.S. Constitution and all other important human endeavors. Focus on the “journey” all the time and we forget the goals…?

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — February 8, 2012 @ 12:08 pm

  2. Dear Jess:

    Maybe ,as we learned from the Moody Blues in bygone days of yore, in our youth no less, that “Thinking is the best way to travel”

    Your students are so lucky to have you guiding them on their early days of their life’s journies…..and that’s no cliche!

    Great blog…Keep it up!…..Ian

    Comment by Ian Stevenson — February 8, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

  3. Heck, I’m all for goals – love ‘em. But all that focus on the endpoint would cause me to miss just so much along the way. My goal in going to law school? Why to graduate and be a lawyer, of course. But what I learned along the way as I worked toward that goal is that lawyering would quickly reduce me to a desiccated pile of dust. Good thing I enjoyed the educational experience, because I’m still making monthly payments on it.

    Comment by Jess — February 8, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

  4. Well, this brought tears to my eyes. I think often get caught up in the goal. I know I do. This was a much needed reminder to pay attention each day, and notice the journey you’re on. The goal is big big while the journey has many small parts to it. You know, “Stop and smell the roses.” I’m a rose sniffer, that’s easy. It’s the journey towards the larger goals, like becoming a lawyer, the things you learn along the way that make you who you are. Look only towards the goal, and you miss the important part.

    Comment by Thia — February 8, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

  5. I love mysteries, at my heart a morality tale tells me that if the bad guy gets caught then all can be put back together. It is how I make sense of the world. The filters we learn from being exposed to a lot of archetypes are methods of understanding and making sense of a lot of complex information. One of the tragedies of a poorly read kid is that they don’t have as many story lines to run a given scenario through and as often as not repeat the same mistake over and over because they don’t have another viable storyline to take its place. I don’t think human societies could function if we did not have these cliches as a way of learning to relate to each other and make sense of how complex human relations can be.

    Comment by DC Parent — February 8, 2012 @ 9:31 pm

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