My students (and I, as a result) read a ton of essays for class. My beginning writing students spend their time reading about how to write and dissecting the writing of others, foraging for good examples. Right now they're working on a unit over narration and description, and they've read several essays that are especially good examples of narration and description.
In her essay, "My Mother Never Worked," Bonnie Smith-Yackel has a conversation with Social Security in an effort to collect a death benefit as her mother has just passed. The essay is masterfully constructed. In the beginning she has a brief conversation with the Social Security worker about her mother and the worker puts Smith-Yackel on hold to pull up her file. The ensuing essay, which takes place while she's on hold, paints a portrait of an incredibly hard working woman. Her mother and father farmed most of their lives spending long hours in sweltering heat, struggling through drought, births, deaths, and plenty of life's other curveballs. Her mother would eventually be paralyzed in a car accident, but her schedule never slowed--she made quilts for her children and grandchildren, baked fresh bread, did her housekeeping, all from her wheelchair. Sadly, the conclusion of the essay is the other end of the Social Security conversation, wherein the worker informs Smith-Yackel that her mother's death will not result in a payment because, "...your mother never worked."
It's a heartbreaking essay. A slap in the face after the deluge of details that make it quite clear that Smith-Yackel's mother worked harder than most readers ever will (myself most definitely included). This essay made for a great class discussion not only about the beauty of a finely constructed essay and the unavoidable irony, but also about the role of stay-at-home parents and the government's view of them as less than "workers."
This essay was published in Women: A Journal of Liberation as well as Ms. magazine.
The second essay they've feasted on (which we'll discuss today) is E.B. White's "Once More to the Lake." It was originally published in Harper's magazine, and it is a perfect essay to examine to learn how to do description right.
White writes about returning to his childhood vacation spot with his son. In the beginning he imagines himself a child again, fishing, exploring, and enjoying the outdoors. As the essay progresses he begins to see himself as his father. He catches himself saying and doing things that his father would've done. By the end of the essay (and it's only barely six pages long) White is grappling with his mortality. As he watches his son put on his swim trunks which have been sitting out in the rain all day, he thinks:
I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.
All these male writers and their genitals (watch the Google hits flow in now). This conclusion reminds me of another essay I read years ago, John Updike's "The Disposable Rocket." While I wasn't a fan of the essay (and RIP, John Updike) it was effective, just as this final image in White's essay is effective in letting us know how scared he is of aging. I'm looking forward to what my students have to say about this essay and how many of them blush when we talk about it.
Today we will also discuss Suzanne Berne's "Ground Zero," which appeared as an op-ed piece in the New York Times in April 2002. Raised in Virginia and Washington D.C., Berne's first trip to NYC's financial district is to see Ground Zero. She describes the scene, standing alongside the fence, the swirl of people--all nationalities and ethnicities--there to pay their respects. While Berne is reverent, there's also the distinct feeling that she is uncomfortable. Just another tourist who wants to take on the pain of the big event. She eventually excuses herself to buy a ticket to an afternoon viewing on a platform overlooking the "pit." Since she has several hours to wait, she visits a nearby deli that boasts a view of the site. As she sits, eating a sandwich, she sees an honor guard escorting remains up a ramp and into the back of an ambulance. It's the definitive moment in the essay when Berne seems to feel both humbled and ashamed as she's finally gotten her "ticket to the disaster."
I wonder what my students will say about this one. If they'll see the subtle nuance and the irony in being so drawn to a place, so full of respect, but also like a gawker addicted to tragedy and destruction. It's a fine line to walk, and it's a great piece of writing on Berne's part.
Incidentally, all of these essays are collected in our textbook, Patterns for College Writing. It's a fantastic book, and I hope the college hangs onto it for a very long time. The essays are wonderful and the teaching tools are plentiful. Heavenly!
Don't forget to visit Books and Movies for more on the Essay Reading Challenge.