Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Food for Thought

The most wonderful thing happened to me today. A student asked a question, and I did not know the answer.
Don’t misunderstand – I am at a loss for answers all the time. Every day, I affix a new index card to the front of my plan book so I will have a place to write down the all questions I need to look up. Tonight, for example, I have to look up the etymology of the word “hypocrite” (Greek, hypokrites, stage actor, pretender, dissembler), find out why Castor and Pollux wear skull caps (remnants of their hatching – long story, involves their father Zeus in the form of a swan), and whether the limerick ever achieved high scholarly status (not really). The last one on my note card, though…it’s a doozy.
There I was, in the middle of a poetry lesson in my seventh grade English class. We were talking about clichés – cliché similes and metaphors, specifically. If a poet were to write that someone is as white as a ghost or meaner than a junkyard dog, readers will understand, but some clichés are so familiar, they don’t mean much anymore. They don’t stop the reader in his tracks or offer up a new way of looking at something.
But, when a writer reports that “purple is like blue, blooming” or that the ladies were “like soft tea cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum,” I can see that dark blue blooming into purple and the cloying heat of a Maycomb Sunday afternoon.
And then, there it was:
“If phrases can be cliché because they are so overused, why aren’t stories like the journey of the hero cliché, too?”
First of all, HALLELUJAH. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Haleleeeeeeeluuujah. What an awesome question. Once my shower of lavish praise ended, however, the room grew very quiet.
Where are Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell when I need them? Flitting about on their angel wings, interpreting Steve Jobs’ dreams, no doubt.
We all thought about the question for a while. They looked at me to see what I would say; I looked at them to see what they would say. Class went on like that for a while. I have some really great students, kids who understand that quiet is not merely something to be filled up.
Finally, a girl – one who rarely speaks up in class – raised her hand. She offered that maybe, if the journey is a little different each time, it’s still exciting to us. Another girl agreed - Bilbo is after the booty in Smaug’s cave, Pip seeks Estella and his expectations, Dorothy has to reveal the man behind the curtain – it’s all the same story, in the end. And yet we keep reading because the details are different.
It was about time for class to end, so I wrote “journey=cliché?” on my index card, and promised to think about it overnight and get back to them.
And then, as they filed out of the room, a student offered up the most lovely cliché I’ve ever heard: “Maybe it’s because the journey is the important part, not the destination. That’s why we keep reading.”


  1. Wow! This post is another one wherein I'm mentally setting aside middle school tuition dollars.

  2. I wish I was one of your students Jessica.

    My question is: who says stories like the journey of the hero aren’t cliché?

    I've described many such stories as cliché, which isn't to say they weren't interesting anyway.

  3. Also, this might be a great moment to whip out a working definition of a trope, and discuss the difference between trope and cliche.

  4. Love, love, love this! You can say archetype, variations on a theme, fresh language...all of that and more...but best of all, you can say unabashed original thinking on the part of the girl who ventured the question and the boy who uttered the not-so-cliche after all final remark. Love happenings like this! Great day for you!

  5. I wonder if it has to do with differences in scale, or the difference between structure and detail. Here's what I mean: we grow tired of having the same thong for lunch every day (detail), but we don't grow tired of having lunch at the same time every day, or of lunch's position as the second of three meals in a day (structure). So maybe it really is that one type of repetition grates on us, while another, at a structural level, resonates. I suspect that many students need to be taught about cliche only because they have not read the classic literary cliches often enough. But how many of them want to hear Gangam Style or Thrift Shop again? They don't tire of the concept of bittersweet love songs, even if they can't stand to hear a particular Taylor Swift song even one more time. For some reason, the familiar structure can be pleasing (or at least not annoying), while a repeated detail is galling. Perhaps the evolutionary psychologists would have a plausible explanation . . .

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