The rain is heavy, steady, rhythmic around me. After reviewing the elements of a short story with my sophomores today, I know the role weather conditions play in establishing setting; that setting will influence the tone and the plot development; that when the conflict emerging in that setting with that tone is resolved, a theme or life lesson results. The dreary, dark night sets the tone for my writing, preparing my readers for pensive, reflective, somber revelations.
Before my English kids discussed what they already knew about short stories for their warm-up this afternoon, my yearbook staff started off the day with focused freewrites on “Memories”. I wasn’t planning on joining them, but the silence save for scribbling of pencils and pens on paper begged me to open a blank slate, a Word Document, and make meaning of my train of thought, starting with old memories, then moving to recent memories, and finally settling on the memories I’m not making.
By the time we were knee-deep in our lesson on short story last block, I was in the zone, making connections even I hadn’t made in a class setting before. My eureka moment came after repeating a nuanced version of an explanation I’ve made countless Septembers preceding this one, emphasizing that it’s not about the stories we read, but about what we do with those stories, the skills we’ll develop analyzing them and searching for meaning and themes relevant to our lives.
And suddenly, excitedly, passionately, out of my mouth came bubbling, “And isn’t each day or week of our lives like a short story? We can identify the setting and how that influences the plot development. We can identify our conflict, and only after the story is over can we see how that conflict was resolved. But we know that conflict is essential to the plot in order to create a theme that teaches us, and we grow by having experienced that particular plot sequence.”
When this novel anecdote had settled, I expected blank stares, but these students appreciate instruction beyond facts and figures. They crave relevancy and currency. Staring back at me, there were a dozen more eureka expressions, the significance having settled in.
The setting is simply where your characters and situation are introduced. If this entry were a short story, I’ve just established the setting and given background information for the major players, myself and my kids, and I’ve set the scene on my front porch in the rain. The point of view is first person, and the reader knows because I’m revealing my own thoughts and feelings.
The rising action is where the conflict unfolds. Were my freewrite this morning entered into the short story line, there’d be a clear conflict revealed. And it’s ultimately the type of conflict that fits a dreary, rainy fall day. That was my next thought after processing my students’ comprehension. My blogging narratives most typically offer nuggets of hope and grace, lending themselves to universal themes of self-acceptance and overcoming obstacles. They’re universal because they translate to others’ lives.
But the rhythmic rain sobers me to reflection on a man vs. self conflict that’s drizzled through the last two hundred days at least. An internal conflict drives this short story. As I free-wrote, I recalled Sunday morning service with Charming at Restoration Anglican in Arlington. There must be something in the welcome refreshments, because there were babies in front of us, behind us, and to our right. The church was inundated with baby cries and cues piercing through sermon and song.
Despite every best, rational, logical thought that I could conjure, my biological clock alarm was going off with no functioning sleep button. I tried to hide my face with my hair, but I knew my unsolicited tears had been noticed when Charming put his arm around me and whispered something about the abundance of babies in the sanctuary. When I tried to apologize later for my histrionics, he understood, explaining it away as a physical response that’s in opposition to my current mental mission.
My conflict is internal, but there’s no choice to make. The battle, instead, is against my own body. God gave me child-bearing hips and the corresponding maternal intuition that makes me ever aware of how desperately I want to be a mom. And in that freewrite this morning, I wound up focusing on the memories I want to be making: helping my daughter prepare for a play audition or cheering on my son on the pitcher’s mound at a Little League game.
The setting is a dimly lit street in downtown Hampton, a rented home empty behind me as I write. The conflict is that I want a home like my brother’s, filled with a family, where accomplishments are going potty on the potty and celebrating a positive note from J.J.’s first grade teacher… and while evolving Pokémon might help Charming and I get closer to the uncertain goal of catching all the virtual creatures in a game that has no influence on the trajectory of reality, it’s simply a distraction… I play because I don’t have kids waiting for me when I get home.
On weeknights when Charming and I are three hours apart, once I’ve worked out at the gym, chipped away at my school work, finished my readings for Bible Study, and wrapped up my Italian lessons, I find myself alone inside this house, and it should be raining when I write about that. My students could tell you it fits. And my tone, my attitude toward what I’m writing, my tone toward the absence of a family is solemn and defeated.
So we have the setting and the rising action. Next to follow is the climax, the turning point of this story. Today, it was that moment just before my students filed out of my classroom. I’d turned to pack my laptop away and the chalkboard behind my desk caught my eye. Half the board is a collection of letters, cards, signs, and sticky notes my students gave me last year. One made an acrostic poem about me of “Thank You” in which the Y stood for Youthful.
My eyes scanned the notes bearing, “I love you,” and more specific words of encouragement and gratitude. My body craves motherhood like my students crave relevancy. I want my life to have meaning beyond Italian lessons and Pokémon. I pray to be contented with singleness, and when my body opposes this like in church on Sunday, I should probably pray harder, fight harder.
There are cherished notes from some of my young bloggers that get the tears going, too. The climax was this moment, cataloging evidence that my life has value and significance. The complication begins to untangle itself in the falling action as my mind focuses on the memories it has already made, in anticipation of the memories to be made with these kids, this year. More eureka moments.
And there will be more notes to add to the board as my livelihood affords me the opportunity to love on the kids that will be running our country when I’m hoping to retire. In my freewrite, I asked the question, “How can I find contentment without the fulfillment that comes with raising a family?” The next word was simply, “Memories.”
I’d answered my own question, ultimately, and this finds us securely in the dénouement, or resolution. Each year, I teach my kids that every story needs a conflict in order for a theme to reveal itself, to set the stage for catharsis. In the sobering, reflective rain, a solemn, regretful tone resolved itself into a realm of contentment. The fresh rain offers a blank slate, a hope in the promise of a sunrise to come.
A lesson in self-acceptance emerged after all as the rain slowed and self overcame self, mind over heart, in a short story of one day in the life of Hampton City School teacher.