I’m reading Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street with my seventh graders. The book is a series of vignettes, all showing snapshots of the life of the main character, Esperanza. As we read, I’m having the students write their own vignettes, and as they write them, I’m writing them too, to give them examples.
For this assignment, students have to tell a story of an incident they remember vividly, explaining what they learned from it or how it shaped them. Here is my example.
These were the days before severe weather sirens. There was no test siren every Friday at 11:00, and there was no official warning if severe thunderstorms were coming. These were the days before the Internet. No one could just get online and check the radar to see what was coming. If bad weather was on its way, you knew it only by looking out the window. These were the days when I was in first grade, and a tornado came through my city.
In Miss Luker’s classroom, I sat on the right side of the room, the side by the door, the side away from the windows. It was June 8, 1982, just a few days before the summer vacation, and it was hot. Schools didn’t have air conditioning back then, so the windows were open and we made paper fans to help move the air around. I was doing my math worksheet. Even as a six-year-old, I didn’t like math. Sure, I could do the math, but I didn’t enjoy it. Not one bit. So I sat there, puzzling over subtraction, which was harder for me than addition had been, and Miss Luker said to us, “Class, I’m going to step out of the classroom for a moment. Please continue working quietly on your assignment.” And because we were sweet, obedient children, we did as she asked.
We did as she asked, that is, until the wind whipped up outside. The rain came down heavily, in sheets so hard it seemed each drop could poke a hole in the earth. The wind blew the rain sideways, into the classroom windows, so that my math paper, even though I was on the opposite side of the room, started to get wet. The sky glared down at us, a menacing shade of green.
“Close the windows!” one student commanded.
“No!” another student replied. “Miss Luker told us NEVER to mess with the windows!”
It was true. And because we were sweet, obedient children, we did as she asked. We left the windows open on that frightening, stormy, please-take-cover June day. Nonetheless, we all cowered a little further away from the hateful weather, each of us leaning just a smidge toward the right side of the room.
Miss Luker hurried into the classroom and rushed toward the windows. As she latched each one as quickly as she could, she asked us, “Why didn’t you shut the windows?”
Innocently, as the sweet, obedient children we were, we replied, “You told us NEVER to mess with the windows.”
I imagine that as she retold the story to her colleagues and friends, she rolled her eyes at our blind obedience. We were six-year-olds, and hadn’t yet developed enough logic to justify disobeying a directive from our teacher. We wanted to please, and we thought that being obedient was the best way to please, rather than thinking for ourselves and making wise decisions on our own. As we grew, we learned that sometimes doing exactly what we were told wasn’t the best decision. Sometimes, we had to think for ourselves and use wisdom rather than just following the rules. We learned that the rules were there for a reason, and most of the time it was best to follow them. But sometimes, it was smarter to shut the windows.