Little Jewels, Every One

“You sure have known some crazy people!”

That’s what one of my students said to me this past week as we discussed Bonnie Jo Campbell’s short story, “The Trespasser.” I had divulged that a former relative of mine was arrested for operating a meth lab out of her house. The student in question piped up:  “You sure have known some crazy people!”

I don’t usually think of the people I have known as crazy (not all of them, anyway), but I also know that “crazy” is a buzz-word with students, like “nice” or “weird.” Buzz words need meaning supplied for them.

In place of “crazy,” I chose intriguing. Worth remembering. Collectibles.

When the student said this to me, I told her exactly that:  I collect characters in my life like little jewels that I pick up off the path I’m walking.

My Grandma with my grandfather, playing on the beach. My Grandma is one of my favorite characters that I’ve collected.

As a teacher, I like to tell stories. I find they help me illustrate concepts, from how to use a semicolon to how to spot symbolism in a story. My students see me as a teacher and not as a writer, and most days, I see myself that way too:  teacher first, writer on the side.

But the writer part of me that I cannot squash is my inclination to tell stories. And as I tell my students, every story needs characters. And as my student pointed out, I have known some characters.

I told them about a manager I had when I was working at a Ruby Tuesday’s. We came to find out she was addicted to crack. She would come to work, her face and arms scabby from scratching and picking at herself. She wore silver lip gloss and silver nail polish to match, and she would make unusual requests.

One night, when I was working as a hostess, she asked me to come to the back office with her. The storage closet was housed with shelves that went ceiling-high, and she wanted me to climb the shelves (there was no ladder) to get down a box of menus that she knew was up there. So, good (young, impressionable) employee that I was, I climbed up the shelves while one of the waiters stood below to receive the box.

There were vases, dust bunnies, and rodent droppings, but no box of menus.

One night, as I sat in the office making the employee schedule, my manager gasped and told me hurry, quick, feel her neck.

I said no. I was not going to feel her neck.

“No,” she said, “you have to! A part of my skull just broke off and is floating around inside my neck.”

I calmly told her I didn’t think this was possible. She insisted. I felt her neck – smooth, clammy, no bumps, no pieces of skull floating under the skin.

My former relative and my crackhead manager make for interesting, if extreme, stories. My students find them funny or horrifying or a bit of both.

But what I really try to teach my students about characters is to notice the details. To see them as people. Because in all likelihood, that’s how they started out in an author’s head.

Not too long ago, I explained to my writing students how important characterizing details are when describing the people in their lives. I told them about my grandmother, who had a fabulous early adulthood, living in Brooklyn during World War II, meeting men, writing letters, getting married. Every time I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I imagine my Grandma in the streets of Brooklyn. But one of the things I remember the best about my Grandma is her burping. She burped quite a bit for a classy old lady, and each time she did, she let out a surprised “Oh!,” as if her body had shocked her by burping, even though she did it frequently.

I could hear that sound now and know it was my Grandma. That’s a characterizing detail. It’s the small thing that belongs only to her, and it’s a way to describe her that likely differentiates her from other people’s grandmothers too.

When I told that story to my students, several of them looked at me like I grew a third eyeball. I heard them whisper to one another, things like, “So picky with the details,” and, “Nobody actually notices that kind of thing.”

I do. I think writers do. I think people who collect the characters in their lives do. We pick up crackheads and meth addicts and belching Grandmas, and we hold them to the light before stashing them in our pockets to keep forever. I pick up my aunt who used to be Minnie Mouse at Disney World, and my maniacal second grade teacher, and the preachers from my youth; I take with me the tea-length dresses my mother wore to work when I was little, the glasses my Granny served me orange juice in, the way it feels when my niece holds my hand as we walk through the mall.

Little jewels, every one. Worth noticing. Worth collecting. Worth taking with me.


22 thoughts on “Little Jewels, Every One

  1. I agree with you, and while I may leave a lot of those details out of my stories, I do notice them and use them as triggers for other memories. Too bad your students don’t realize the importance of these things now; I bet they will as they get older. You will be that stickler for details teacher that they had back in the day.

    P.S. If you have a Google+ account, find us at https://plus.google.com/u/0/b/113309757374679882851/113309757374679882851/posts and circle us. That way I can share your posts and tag you in them over there.

    1. Thanks! If I can go down in their educational history as the “stickler for details” teacher, I’ll be pretty pleased. I just followed you… is that the same as circling? *digital not-so-native*

  2. My mother-in-law (who reads my blog more religiously than anyone I know) once said, “I was there when X event happened, but had no clue how much I missed until I read about it on your blog. You just describe everything perfectly, like a writer does.” Aside from the unintentional slight about me being “like” a writer, I was really glad that someone noticed that I cannot help but pay attention to all of the sensory input.

  3. ” . . . we hold them to the light before stashing them in our pockets to keep forever.” This is so well expressed – if only all the people we came in contact with realized how we truly do treasure them while we are in the process of stashing them away for future reference!

  4. My grandma was gassy too, but from the other end. A slightly tarnished jewel to remember 😉 This was a great read! The details some people remember are boring but yours really are lovely glittering chips of mundanity.

  5. As part of a project known as the “Nun Study,” sisters wrote autobiographies. The researchers noticed that the nuns who wrote with the most detail (what they called “idea dense” writing) seemed to avoid Alzheimer’s compared to the nuns who described their lives in less detail. Maybe the next time a student insists that no one notices the details, you can tell them not only does it make for better writing, it probably makes for better living!

  6. This was simply beautiful, and I could not agree more with all that you have said. As an English teacher myself (although currently unemployed), I could relate to you too. I was always a story teller in my class, and I’m surprised by some of the lessons my students have remembered because of the stories that accompanied them as I keep in touch with students after graduation. I liked so many of your lines, especially: “We pick up crackheads and meth addicts and belching Grandmas, and we hold them to the light before stashing them in our pockets to keep forever.” Your post filled me with joy to know there are others out there who find all people a treasure — not just the pretty, polite ones. Great post!

    1. Oh wow, thank you! What a kind, wonderful comment! As a kindred spirit, I love hearing from other teachers who have had similar (or even different) approaches but who still find power in storytelling. Thanks for sharing your experiences – and for reading – and for commenting!! 🙂

  7. Such a beautiful post! Since I’ve started writing, I really try to take note of these little details too. I think this image will stick with me for a long time, and the last line was perfect, “Little jewels, every one. Worth noticing. Worth collecting. Worth taking with me.”

  8. What a great post. It is in fact the details that make a character or a place stay with us. Read any of the great novels and see what small detail the author has given a character to allow the reader to know who they are referring to, or who is speaking. I love description. If done right it adds not detracts from a story well told. And Bonnie Jo Campbell – great stuff. I’m with you all the way on this post.

  9. Well I sure think this is a jewel and not a little one. I love your clear and warm writing style. I love the details in writing and I love how you got them in without calling attention to them. It’s fun to read your beautiful writing.

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