by Ron Hayes
As the end of August draws near—and with it the end of yet another summer—the stores and the shopping malls tell us that the diminishing daylight and dropping temps can mean only one thing: Christmas is here!
Okay, well perhaps not that quite yet. Of course we all know that with the end of summer comes the inevitable Back-to-School onslaught from retailers. With so many friends and readers being teachers (and/or parents), I thought it would be a good time to think about Back-to-School season from a writing perspective. Granted, the combination of writing and late summer doesn’t seem to be the most natural of pairings, but why can’t it be? Back-to-School in many ways means Back-to-Writing: “What I Did Last Summer” essays, summer reading book reports, school supply checklists, “Please excuse my son/daughter from school yesterday” notes… Yes, it won’t be long before we’re all plying our fictions in one way or another, so why not look at some ways of keeping it fresh?
I think the best advice I can offer comes in the form of an anecdote from my earliest days of parenting. Twenty years ago (!), when we were first waiting for Son #1 to arrive, I became obsessed with finding the perfect name. I bought scads of baby name books and pored over the thousands of names they contained, consumed with finding just the right one. Flying quickly through the cute and charming phases to the annoying and alarming phases, and landing finally at the “This-is-utterly-ridiculous” phase of the baby-naming process, I was able to curb my research urges once I purchased a book called Beyond Jennifer and Jason, in my opinion, the gold standard of baby-name books by far. Two reasons: first, the authors, Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran, invested serious thought and creativity to their book. Instead of simply choosing to populate page after page with lists of alphabetized names, they showed us lists of names popular through each decade over the past century, lists of names of royalty and celebrities, and fascinating ethnic variants of common American classics. Secondly, the most useful implementation of the authors’ creativity came in the section where prospective parents could ameliorate the dilemma of being in love with a popular name while at the same time wanting their child to be called something more unique.
The section worked by offering names that were both similar and distinctive as substitutions for common, popular names. For example, if parents liked the name Jacob but felt it to be a little overused, the authors offered alternatives like Caleb, Gavin, Jaden, and Seamus. If your grandmother’s name was Charlotte but you couldn’t quite pull the trigger on handing that moniker down to your little one, the book made suggestions like Carlotta, Eliza, Georgia, and Madeline. While it wasn’t a feature we ended up using ultimately, I found it to be so inspirational and informative that I still use it when I’m working on my fiction. More importantly, I’ve transferred the idea of the section to my work as a teacher.
I’m fortunate that I work at a school that affords me some flexibility in my choice of materials, and as I close in on a decade at the front of a classroom, this flexibility gives me a chance to replace William with Billy, substitute a little Ezra for Edgar. Instead of covering three or four of Shakespeare’s sonnets, I take one out and lead off our discussion of poetics with “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins. Later in the year I’ll challenge my students to compare the thick “tintinnabulation” of Poe with the cleaner, crisper “cantilations” of Ezra Pound. Extra-help nights or individualized lessons with students in the Intervention Room diverge from the standard worksheets on The Diary of Anne Frank to a close reading of a few pages from Art Spiegelman’s Maus. This year I’m excited to try augmenting “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and the “I Have a Dream” speech with selections from Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination.
Had I never encountered Beyond Jennifer and Jason, I’m not sure I’d have so readily made the leap to teaching alternatives to staid old classics from the canon. As we all head back to school in one way or another, see if you can’t find a way to rethink the classic and the conventional and add a healthy, challenging twist to your reading, your writing, and quite possibly, your very way of thinking.