Saturday, April 30, 2011

It's a Sky Blue Sky

“They looked down on me, thinking I was some jerk to believe in the Lord Christ.” This is the first line of an essay I read yesterday written by a seventh grader in M___. The question this year on the big state test asks the kids to think of a time they were proud and then write about it. The young man quoted above was proud that he did not fight the kids who taunted him, but rather quoted at length from the Bible, which he considered a greater victory, though I think it’s safe to say that the other kids probably considered him even more of a jerk afterward.

So what are seventh graders proud of? You probably won’t be surprised to learn that many of them talk about winning some kind of baseball or basketball or soccer game, which almost always includes a detailed play-by-play of the action that my coworker Jenni likened to the Phil Rizzuto section of “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” There are also dance and gymnastics competitions and trying out for cheerleading. (Everyone at my table hates the cheerleaders.) There are unnecessary descriptions of simply everything: “I walked up to my friend, whose eyes were like pools of blue-green water.” But then sometimes you get that Bible-quoting kid or the boy who was proud of holding his breath for two minutes and thirty seconds, and who pointed out that the worst thing that could happen would be that he’d black out. His goal is to reach three minutes. Perhaps the best thing about these papers is how the kids throw in random vocabulary words that are almost always used awkwardly. These are the sentences we quote to each other all day long: “The time I was supercilious was a benevolent day.”

And this got me thinking about actually learning the word “inevitable” in the seventh grade. One day I didn’t know this word and the next day I did and suddenly I couldn’t imagine how I’d never known it before. We had this great English teacher, who may have been all of 24 at the time, who gave us extra credit anytime we saw one of our vocabulary words in real life. We just had to write down the sentence it was in and show it to her. And at the beginning of every class there were always kids rushing up to her with scraps of paper scribbled with sentences containing words like “balderdash” and “harried.” And most of us did exceptionally well on the vocabulary tests that year too. It was, you know, inevitable.

But back to today’s seventh graders, who sometimes write about Justin Bieber and sometimes about learning to do ollies on their skateboards and sometimes just want to make things perfectly clear: “My jaw dropped all the way to my blue crocs that were in style then.”

Of course, I'm sure it's no surprise that reading these all day can be tedious and that sometimes we skim them (especially the sports ones, oh man, the sports ones), but that sometimes there is that seventh grader that shines as brightly as the daisy yellow sun in the cornflower blue sky. Wait, someone will say. Listen to this! And we'll all marvel at the fact that some kid out there will go on to do great things, even though most of these essays leave us generally discouraged about the youth of America.

But here, the last line of a baseball essay about the last game of the season, in which a girl pitched a winning game against a team that included a mean girl named Angelica, who had been taunting her all season: “I remember the hoots and howls of the crowd when I threw that changeup and the look on Angelica’s face when she swung five seconds too early.” We all know that look. Sorry, Angelica.