And then there are the days when this work feels like a privilege. This driving across the desert and stepping into schools where I know no one but have somehow been deemed trustworthy and knowledgeable enough to sit next to a child, or 30, and watch how imagination happens.
I’ve decided that most of what’s necessary to ignite an imagination is a good assignment and some probing questions. And then some more questions. And a few more. And then some quiet time to let the images take shape and the sounds to emerge and the textures to be felt. Oh, and animals help, too.
I come to Ft. Thomas Elementary School this week with one main mandate—to help enliven the animal legends the fourth-grade students here wrote before my arrival. At first I’m thinking it will be difficult to teach imagery and strong verbs and the craft of story after the fact, once the stories are already written. But I’m wrong. Because having the students come ready with a rough draft means that I can work as a mentor, an editor. Which is the kind of teaching I came to love during my years editing 110 Degrees at Voices, Inc. It’s one-on-one. It’s immediate. It’s rare. It’s right.
Their assignment has been to write a legend about an animal that lives in the Arizona desert—a story explaining how the animal acquired its signature characteristic—how the jackrabbit got long ears, how the ocelot got its spots, why coyote howls at the moon, etc. It’s a good solid assignment. Which isn’t surprising, given that the two fourth grade teachers here are some of the most organized and consistent teachers I’ve ever met. That means the lessons are well-planned and detailed and the students know what’s expected of them. It also means the students have done their homework. They have folders full of information about their animals they’ve collected from newspapers, online sources, storybooks, picture encyclopedias.
The day I arrive, their objective is written on the white board “I will revise my animal legend with Miss Kimi.” A mandate, indeed.
I spend the first day familiarizing the students with images and strong actions, my butter and salt of good writing. Necessary ingredients. We read Gary Soto’s “Ode to Los Raspados”—not because it has anything to do with animal legends, but because it is one of my favorite story-poems for its collection of images and actions. “The sun is bright/As a hot dime” … “Grapes that stain/ The mouth with laughter” … “tee-shirts/ That end at / The cyclone knot / Of belly buttons” … And, because it’s about snow cones on a summer day and an ice cream truck that announces its arrival with music, kids tend to connect to it.
After we pick out the sensory details and action in Soto’s ode, I have them list sensory details and actions for their animal. What does it look like? What does it see? What does it smell, taste, hear? What does it feel like? This is basic stuff, but I never seem to tire of it. I like what happens to my brain when I try to imagine the sights I would see if I suddenly became a collared lizard, the sounds I would hear if I were a jackrabbit, what I’d smell if I were a ridge-nosed rattlesnake. I like what happens to my body when I try to imagine the actions of a coyote, an armadillo, a hummingbird. (And of course, this will prove to be doubly useful when I move into some dance work with them later in the week.)
The next day I am given a small round table in the hallway. The students are sent to me one at a time, first drafts in hand. They also bring their lists of details and actions. I read the stories aloud and we start to think about what the story “looks” like. What pictures does it bring to mind? If you didn’t know what Gila Monster or Wolf or Golden Eagle looked like, would you after reading the story? Can we create a “picture” of this animal to open the legend, seeing it in its habitat eating, scratching, hopping, slithering? If the story is about how Mule Deer’s ears grow longer, then don’t we need to show him first with short stubby ears? Yes.
This an oral interview that is then transcribed. This is a certain kind of writing. Maybe it’s cheating, I don’t know.
Sometimes, I ask leading questions. “Does your animal see other animals? Which ones? Does he hear water, the wind, footsteps?” Is that too much prodding? Too much suggestion? I don’t know.
Maybe I just open a window on to the words. “How would you say that?” I ask.
Sometimes their words come out reluctantly, like rain stuck in the clouds in June. I have to reframe the questions over and over. Can you say that in a sentence?
But then—and I love these moments!—the clouds split and the words rain down. One girl tells the story of why Coyote howls at the moon. He goes to a Valentine’s Day party in a cave. What does it look like in the cave, how it is decorated? “With lots of candles and lights, heart-shaped balloons and a cake with four layers of hearts from big to small.” And what does it sound like? “Bear was there, playing music on the drums.” And what does Coyote do? “Coyote started dancing to the rhythm of the drumbeats.” How does he dance? “He started dancing crazy and his arms went everywhere and he was slapping the other animals in the face.”
And then no more questions are needed, because Coyote is now fully visible inside this girl’s head. He’s dancing wildly and the other animals think he is “crazy on the cake.” They throw him out of the cave and then he keeps dancing outside and then he sees the moon, only half-full, and then he says, “Please, please give me more light!” and then the moon goes full and Coyote keeps dancing and then he passes out and then Hummingbird comes and pokes him with her beak but she can’t wake him up and then the cops come and see that Coyote is drunk and then they put him in jail and then … and then … and then …
And then I realize that all we need to do, really, to create stories is to see the story. I mean really see it. I am thinking about this little girl as she brings Coyote to life. Where are these images coming from? Has she ever seen Coyote? Has she seen someone dancing wildly? Has she seen someone drunk? Has she seen the cops come for someone? On TV? In real life? It doesn’t matter really, because the point is that she’s seeing Coyote now, in three dimensions, and hearing him and feeling him and becoming him. And then…and then….and then.
And then I realize how brilliant it is. Because it’s all just black and white words on the computer screen and the two of us sitting quietly on small blue chairs in an empty hallway. And then, it’s also so much more. It’s Coyote. Dancing. Howling. Not drunk on cake or alcohol but drunk on the moon and on Valentine’s Day and on love and how wonderful is it that he is conceived of in this way by a 9-year-old girl and that she can sit next to a stranger and see this and say it and write it and because she does that the story becomes a story, alive, full, rich, with a kooky character and images and actions and textures and colors and humor and real-life applications and associations.
And her words keep spilling out. And then Coyote gets out of jail and goes to Hummingbird’s house and stays there until the next moon and then he goes out and does his dance and song again. And then I’m sitting there quietly listening and typing and nodding. And then I am swinging and dancing and howling at the glowing orb of imagination expanding inside this girl’s brain.
And I haven’t even told you yet about how Rattlesnake got his rattle.