Two essays written by Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) graduates while students at the high school appear in a new textbook entitled “Expository Composition, Discovering your Voice.”
Nicole Perry of Oak Bluffs, class of 2006, and Ben Williams of Vineyard Haven, class of 2008, wrote the essays. EMC Publishing, LLC of St. Paul, Minn published the book with an accompanying teacher’s guide. It is designed to be a college textbook, but it is used by high schools as well.
Ms. Perry, who graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010 with an English degree, now works for Imagitas, a marketing company, as a website editor. Her essay, “The Zen of Clams,” was written as a personal/college essay, high school English teacher, Dan Sharkovitz said. It is a short piece that describes the difficulty she has with some of her mother’s tendencies that she realizes she probably has as well. Some of her tale revolves around steaming clams.
Mr. Williams is a student at Reed College in Portland, Ore. A 2012 summer intern at The Times, his essay “Becoming a Poet” was written as a finishing piece for a course he had in high school where he taught poetry to elementary school students. It begins “I got into poetry for the best reason…a girl.
Mr. Sharkovitz, their former teacher, liked the two pieces and had used them as samples of good writing in his classes at MVRHS for several years. When two teacher friends were revising the composition text they had written and were looking for new material, “Shark,” as he is known to his students, submitted the two essays.
“They are the first students in the entire history of MVRHS to have essays that were written while they were students in high school published in a textbook,” Mr. Sharkovitz said.
The book’s authors host an internet site that offers help for aspiring writers at http://response.emcp.com/expositorycomp/?page_id=2.
The Zen of Clams
By Nicole Perry
“Could I get a hot dog without the actual meat, just some ketchup on a bun and maybe a little relish?” my mom asked.
The vendor stared back at her and laughed under her breath. Slowly, the squat woman reached for a bun, pausing for a minute to shake her head as she shoveled on some condiments and handed the pathetic looking meal over to my mom, all the while giving her that same condescending, belittling glance from the side of her eyes.
I hate that look. In an instant, it makes me maliciously protective of my mom, and I want nothing more than to snap back at the vendor: “Excuse me, allow me to point out that you work at a hot dog stand for a living and you’re wearing a cardboard hat and an apron with a dancing soda can on it, so stop acting as if my mom is some sort of circus freak. Wipe that smug look off your face, and give the woman her damn ketchup and bread!”
I restrain myself to nothing more than a dirty look. A few moments later, as my mom and I eat our food at a nearby bench, I turn to her and sigh, “Mom, you are so weird. Honestly, just when I think you couldn’t possibly be any stranger, you go and top yourself.”
How ironic that the same attitude I give my mom every day about her “unique” beliefs and odd behavior, is also the attitude that I despise when it comes from other people.
Could it be then, that in reality we possess the very traits that we find undesirable and annoying in others? The characteristics we ascribe to our enemies could in fact be some of our own. And if that were the case, then essentially, no one is exempt from being labeled selfish or backstabbing or a liar. Perhaps we all possess these flaws, and above all, possess the inability to see these flaws within ourselves.
I remember last summer when my mom called me into the kitchen and asked me to pour the night’s clams into a pot of boiling water.
“You called me all the way in here to dump a bag of clams into a pot of water that is four inches away from you?” I asked with a rude look of disbelief.
“Well I don’t want to take on the negative karma of the clams’ souls by aiding in their death.” My mom always explained things with innocent patience, as if it were perfectly normal to fear clam karma. I gave my mom my familiar roll of the eyes and grabbed the heavy bag.
“You are so annoying, Mom. Why can’t you just be normal for once? You go to some hippy weirdo church in the woods of Chilmark, you meditate on a pillow in our basement closet, and now you won’t even make dinner.” I dumped in the clams, splashing hot water on the stove and stomped off.
What a hypocrite I am to judge my mom’s beliefs and accuse her of being weird, all the while going to bed at night worrying about the bad clam karma on my soul and hoping that I didn’t dump any sinners into that boiling pot of water.
I think that by recognizing the flaws within ourselves, we could be more understanding of those same flaws in others. Could this not be the start to eliminating hate and resentment? Isn’t it what Gandhi meant in his hopes for peace by suggesting focusing on self-improvement instead of trying to improve the world?
It’s hard for me still to criticize my mom when I face the facts that I was eager to eat the food she claimed was blessed by her guru, Sadu Ram, during my AP final exams. Not only that, but even when I have a house of my own, I will most likely still buy organic tampons and brown recycled napkins. Furthermore, when my mom isn’t looking, I sometimes eat her dried kelp and aloe plants because deep down I do believe in their healing power.
If people could admit certain flaws and traits about themselves and embrace them as a part of who they are, then maybe when they see those same traits in others, they will be accepting and understanding. Could it be that the cause of all the world’s hatred is nothing more than hypocrisy? And is the cure to end hypocrisy, or simply to accept the fact that we are all hypocrites?
It still bothers me sometimes that my mom didn’t want to take on the bad karma of those clams, yet had no problem allowing me to do so, and it seems hypocritical. Perhaps this is why she is always so patient when I scoff at her beliefs and give her those icy stares, all the while becoming more and more like her each day.
Maybe it’s that my mom knows that she, just like me and the rest of the world, are all hypocrites, and that by including herself in that massive group of flawed beings, she accepts and loves them all the more.
Becoming a Poet
by Ben Williams
I got into poetry for the best reason. The reason that a self-respecting 15-year-old boy should get into anything — a girl. So there I was, a sophomore who had just switched into “Creative Writing.” Sometime around there the pain, I mean, the poetry, started.
Technically, I had written before. I’d scrawled the obligatory poetic gestures that are evident in an appropriate 8th grade English class. I’d learned what alliteration was, and I probably knew consonance and assonance, too. I didn’t know poetry though.
That quickly became evident as Mr. Sharkovitz walked in, turned to the class and said, “All right, who knows what poetry is?”
What it is? Um, words? That do things? Sometimes they rhyme? They’re, uh, sophisticated? Deep? Black? Go well with coffee? I proceeded to learn more and more about how much I didn’t know.
I had this self-righteous sense that I was going to systematically conquer a literary genre with the wits I came equipped with and the pencil I already had in my pocket. Around this time I learned what “trite,” “clichéd,” and “purple” meant — my writing.
I believed that as long as a thought was pure, as long as I was expressing something I felt, the writing couldn’t be bad. I mean, those words had come out of my brain when I was in a poetic mood. I believed words should form on the page as a direct transmutation of my thoughts and feelings. To criticize poetry seemed nonsensical. I mean, how can you criticize somebody’s feelings? How can you look at someone’s poetry and tell him or her that they’re wrong?
It hurt. It burned. But worse, I didn’t know how to fix it. Here I was, writing a line such as, “Endless cyclones of torment.” Seriously. “Endless cyclones.” It was probably the easiest thing in the world for Shark to put a big red line through it and write “purple.” Sure, I got that I was wrong. I understood that I had no concept of “endless.” I understood that if I wanted to write about torment, I had to show the audience torment, not tell them torment. I got that what I had was wrong, but I couldn’t get it right. So I slipped into denial and I fought it.
I tried to stand by my poems, to argue that the idea behind them was more important than the inarticulate way I wrote them. I thought that it was unfair to be held to such a high standard. I mean, give me a break. I just started this poetry thing. I’m a beginner. I’ll get better, I promise.
And somehow, I did get better. It didn’t get easier though. If anything, it got harder. Every word my pencil wrote I had to check myself. Test it for weaknesses. Look for any stray word or any vague thought. For a time I wasn’t even writing the poems I wanted to write, I was writing the poems I thought wouldn’t be ripped to pieces. In retrospect, that was a necessary step.
I had all of these big ideas — too big, really. Ideas based on concepts that sounded good off the tongue but weren’t rooted in anything. I wanted to write the poem that would change the world, and it was good that I was taken down a notch.
In class, I would sit on the far side of the room, my back to the window. To my immediate right was an empty desk. To my left was the girl that I mentioned. She was — and is, I imagined — an amazing writer. She didn’t have any of the dragging problems I was facing. Directly across from us sat six senior guys. Real jerks, for the most part. But I was biased. Really biased. They were the musicians and slackers who got all the women and were set in their way of thinking. If they didn’t like your writing, they told you. Straight up. One especially memorable quote, directed towards another student’s play, was, “That was the worst thing I’ve ever heard. You should probably never write a play again.”
Whew. If you wanted to share a poem in that class, it had to be a good one. That left me with two options — say nothing, something I’ve never been good at, or have something worth saying. I had taken the easy route before. I probably take the easy route most of the time. This was different. This was poetry. Something about the art form struck me. So I worked it.
Helping me through this rough beginning was a poetry group that was offered at Featherstone by local poet, Justen Ahren. This was a small group, made up of my friends and allies. It struck a sharp contrast to the Creative Writing class at the high school. At Featherstone you could put a poem out fearlessly. Negative criticism was always constructive. Bad poems were valued for their merits and nurtured to health. The yin and yang nature of the two classes slowly improved my writing.
I began keeping a small writing book by my side at all times. Writing down poems as soon as they came to me. That’s when I wrote my first good poem. I didn’t know how good it was at first. Some of the thoughts expressed in it were unclear even to myself, but I had gotten a slightly better eye for poetry and I could see it had a couple merits.
It was inspired by some of the performance poets I had seen recently, and the poem was written so that it lent itself to elocution. It was playful with language with lines like:
wouldn’t the world be better
if people were just a bit more like
But it had a certain honest edge to it. I was still frightened to read poems in Creative Writing, so I decided to read it the next time the Featherstone group met.
Especially with poetry, compliments can be hard to interpret. Compliments can be given to the most narcoleptic of poems. Compliments such as “that’s the best poem I’ve heard you read” can mean nothing. There is one compliment that every young poet should strive for — a compliment that this poem happened to earn for me: Did you really write that?
And I did write it. Seeing that I was onto something, I kept with it. I smoothed it out. I formed it into six stanzas and kept rewriting and reshaping. Eventually I was satisfied. I had a poem, and just in time.
At the end of each Creative Writing course, a coffeehouse is held in the library. At the coffeehouse every student in the class has to go up to the podium and read something they’ve written in the class. For a few days, I practiced the poem, having my sister watch my performance and help me find the ways to deliver the lines.
I used to think of myself as being brave, of not caring what people think of me. I’m sitting there at the coffeehouse waiting for my turn to read and I’m sweating. I feel nauseous. I forget how to read. I can feel my voice cracking already. I get called up to the podium.
I stand up from my seat and lose track of time. There are millions of people in the audience. Luckily, I remember how to breathe. With each breath I seem to remind myself that I know what I’m doing, that I have a good poem to read. I tell myself that I’m a poet, that I can write in whatever tense I want to, that I can use periods instead of commas. I get to the microphone, read my poem, and nail it.
I get a grade of 52 points out of a possible 50. People I hardly know tell me that they liked my poem and that they had not previously known that I was a poet. Doom.
Doom because I’m not one, because I suddenly have this public posture as a poet, and I only have one poem. Weeks go by. I keep my writing book by my side constantly, write in it fairly frequently, and get nothing. Maybe four months later, something strikes me, and then boom. I have a second poem. Then I slowly stumble into a third poem, then a fourth.
I have good nights and good weeks, squeezed between bad weeks and bad months. I write 10 or 20 scrawls for every one scribble that survives and lives into a poem. But as the number of scrawls rise, the number of poems rises with it.
Somewhere along the way, I learned a few things. First, that I’m not a poet. I still couldn’t tell you what a poet is exactly, but I was and am, not a poet. I write poetry though, and just as important, I enjoy poetry.
Junior year I took creative writing again. It was ridiculously easier this time around. Shark likes me more as well. He had front row seats to witness my writing improve, and I think he took some well-deserved credit in the fact that my writing improved during his class. The beginning was stormy, but I weathered it. Now the writing came easier. I still had trouble writing good poems, but my bad poems were better than they used to be.
Oh yeah. That girl I mentioned. I kind of forgot about her. I mean, it happens. At some point she stopped being the reason for my writing. I still owe her a lot. She got me into poetry in the first place.
The narrative stops there. Not because it’s over. Not because it’s caught up to the present, but because the story doesn’t have an ending. I want to be a person who creates.
Former poet laureate Donald Hall wrote an essay called, “Poetry and Ambition.” The first line is, “I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems.” The essay goes on to state how the problem with a lot of poetry today is that it strives to be sufficient. Hall argues that poets should strive to “write words that last forever.” If they fall short of this goal, at least they have pushed themselves to improve. That might be the most refreshing thing about poetry: I can write it till they hammer the nails in.