Sitting by the lake this summer with some of my favorite young people, we fell into a conversation about our various scars. Our eyes scanned our legs, arms, chins and foreheads to find our scars and see each others. Soon we were telling stories of bike wrecks and stitches in our heads. An idea for a writing assignment came to me. “Scars are stories in your skin; we’re going to write about this when school starts,” I said to one of the girls who was headed into my English class this fall. She smiled as she rolled her eyes as if to say, “ Oh no, not school already.
The day has come and we have indeed written the story of our scars. This is but one in a series of small writing assignments I have given lately to provide fodder for our first paper of the year which is a narrative essay. We have written about our most embarrassing moments, about lessons we have learned, and about the most memorable moments of our lives.
I’ve read about gushing blood and gashing knees. My students have fallen out of trees, cut their legs skimboarding, broken their arms in football practice. They have lied to their parents ( and been caught) and wet their pants in public ( when they were much younger, of course).
Writing the narrative is not new; writing the narrative essay is. They have been writing stories from their own lives since elementary school. The difference is that the essay has a reflective component; the students must find meaning, they must think through the experience to determine its significance in their lives. This is not always easy for fourteen year olds to articulate.
We’ve read two model essays, one written by a student and another written by a Pulitzer Prize winner. We’ve practiced finding that part of the essay where the writer reveals why his or her experience is important. It isn’t always a lesson learned; there isn’t always a “moral to the story”. This sometimes frustrates the child inside these young adults. They want the answer to be obvious, but that is not always the case. Sometimes there is simply a truth revealed, a little glint of light that opens up the world a bit more to a young person, a layer of understanding about how the world works that they haven’t previously had.
If hindsight is 20/20, then I suppose the further one is away from an experience the more clearly one can see it. Perspective lengthens and broadens. Reflection is a skill we seem to develop with age. My fourteen and fifteen year olds aren’t revealing the secrets of the universe in these first narrative essays, but they are beginning to learn the importance of finding meaning, of reflecting on their choices, and being able to articulate their discoveries.