I teach three writing genres to my 4th graders. We start off with expository, move on to persuasive, and end the year with narrative. The third excites kids the most. They draw on experiences – good, bad, and ugly – and learn to embellish. Graphic organizers for previous writing styles commanded five body paragraphs, but ones created for personal experiences dedicate several entire sections – beginning, middle, and end – to sensory details.
“What does that mean?” they ask.
I write taste, feel, hear, see and smell on the board. I tell them that for each part of their story, they should include several details to help the reader understand their experience. I post an exhaustive list, titled “Words that Enhance Writing,” which includes fuzzy and fruity, satiny, glossy and minty, and then I check their work.
“I see a bookshelf,” writes one.
“I hear fear,” another pens.
“I taste strawberries.”
And I realize they need more concrete examples. So I choose an incident incredibly intense, riddled with emotion:
“I let my daughter go on the big kid swing last weekend, and she fell off,” I say.
This year, I have an eclectic group, many with difficulty focusing. It’s as if they all caffeinate with the intention of tackling a marathon, but are then stuck in a classroom for eight hours. The result is incessant fidgeting and shouting, overall chaos.
But in that moment, eyes were glued, bodies motionless. Their collective gasp, followed by looks of terror and condemnation confirmed what I had already thought:
I felt like the worst mom in the history of the world, I write on the board. The sparkling sun spotlighted Autumn, lying limply on the ground, I continued, pointing out my impressive use of alliteration. The kids are still awestruck, more at the incident than the writer recounting it, and I continue feverishly.
A thousand jagged wood chips attacking my sweet baby’s tender cheeks
One student is skeptical, accusing me of exaggeration. I admit it’s possible, but also continue, this time with hearing:
Earsplitting screams, blaring sirens from the Mom Police, explaining it’s a made-up corps who scolds parents when they make terrible mistakes. They only exist in our heads, with reprimands like What were you thinking? Are you insane? How dumb could you be? I am so caught up in my confession I barely hear one student mutter:
“Ms. Litwin, this happens to all moms.”
I don’t deserve his empathy. It was my job to keep her safe, and I failed. I ignore it and continue, getting even more creative with my self-flagellation.
If I was able to taste the sounds of my child’s painful shrieks, they’d be bitter and brackish, sour and salty.
I know I’m going a little overboard. Once enthralled students are now confused and restless. I throw smell out the window, imagine it morphing into stinging, acrid fumes.
I want to stop but also to go on. To tell them I was a straight A student, but now a C-average mom. That every scratch on her face resulted in a grade lower, every tear another point off. To admit that I’m not the Instagrammer who makes every meal look like a storybook illustration or the one who religiously rotates wooden toys. I’m just the one who’s trying to do what’s best, and still struggling with imperfection.
But I refrain from telling them all that, not just for the sake of time, but mostly because it’d be weird.
A student approaches me with his pre-writing, and before I take it, I ask about details. He looks at me sheepishly, a knowing grin, and walks away. Tomorrow will be a new day, and we will both try to do better.