I love geology.
Digging in the soil circle under an acacia tree in our front yard fostered my deep respect for dirt. Without regard for soap or lotion, those little hands, cupped into human scoops, moved mud and rocks into forts and dungeons. I was five.
Twelve years later I enrolled in Geology 101 at USC.
Amidst chemistry and physics majors, math majors and other geeks sat I, an English major with a penchant for dirt.
Minerals turned me on. Especially quartz. Everywhere I traveled, camped, or hiked, took on a new geologic meaning.
The Sierra Nevada Mountains, with their granite spine, became quartz and feldspar outcroppings. Half Dome at Yosemite became a big igneous thumb.
Dr. Davis, my geology professor at USC, with his infectious passion for tectonic plates, seismic rumbles, sedimentary shifts, and multi-faceted minerals,helped me become a tornadic force in the lab.
One day, he announced that a piece of the moon would be on display across Exposition Blvd. at the museum.
Moon rock. Oh wow. Dr. Davis called it a lunar sample.
Seeing that small fragment of moon rock, delivered to us Earthlings by the crew of Apollo 11, hooked me.
I must admit, in my childlike naiveté, I had expected the lunar sample to be white. To see under the glass that day an irregular-shaped nugget, the color of pencil lead, rounded my eyes like the moon itself.
Year’s later, guiding 9th graders through Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, I tried to make geologic connections. And in poetry, all reference to the moon promised for my students a tangential paean to geology, and though my honors juniors learned that The Metamorphosis is a story about a guy who wakes up to find himself changed into a giant insect, they also learned about igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks.
On April 1, 1991, during 3rd period American literature, I sat at my desk taking roll, as the juniors streamed into the classroom. I had configured the desks in such a way as to have a center isle (so I could walk up and down in dramatic fashion) with two sides of desks, so that one half of the class faced the other. This arrangement worked well for discussion and lecture.
That morning, all April Fool’s jokes had been played. Other teachers had announced fake pop quizzes and issued student progress reports with C’s instead of A’s. At the high school level, April Fool’s Day and all jokes were over by 2nd period.
Today, in my classroom, American writer Edith Wharton was on tap; we would examine the stark imagery in her novel Ethan Frome.
As was customary, I walked up the center aisle and sat on my tall stool, ready to go. This time, on my way to the front, I noticed, couldn’t help but notice, an impressive piece of granite, the size of an ostrich egg, on Peter’s desk. Peter sat in the front row, a handsome and charming young man with eyes the color of malachite.
Wow! Granite! Where did you get this?? I love granite. Did you know that Half Dome in Yosemite is made of granite?
With that question, I picked it up. Smooth in my hands, the rock must have weighed a pound.
“My family and I went to Echo Lake to camp last weekend. I know you love rocks and since we are going to discuss Ms. Wharton’s imagery in Ethan Frome, I thought bringing my version of Show and Tell would add to our discussion.”
Behavior like this in an honors classroom isn’t all that unusual. Some, sincere, some, not—but about this cross-curricular connection from Peter I should have been more suspicious.
Up on my stool, in my pleated black skirt, I crossed my legs carefully, and leaned forward on my exhausted copy of Ethan Frome.
Ms. Wharton used imagery to convey her literary intention. Yesterday, I asked you to go home and dig for examples of imagery. In the Introduction, we can begin to visualize the harsh environment that will be the backdrop for the tragically ironic lives of Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena. Can…
The sight of another dramatic and larger piece of granite on John’s desk, three rows back, caught my eyes.
This rock was the size of a pound cake. John, Peter’s best friend and a light-hearted student with dark brown hair and eyes the color of dark topaz, replied, “I camped with Peter’s family and found this piece of granite by our tent. I knew you would like it.”
By now, ten minutes had elapsed and I had imagery on my mind.
Great, John. After class, bring that specimen over to my desk so I can take a look.
“Sure, Mrs. Sabraw.”
OK. Enough discussion about feldspar, mica, and quartz. Turn to page 13. Harmon Gow suggests that Ethan had been in Starkfied “too many winters.” Who found some concrete examples of stark imagery?
In the next 20 seconds, my lecture about imagery changed into a surreal burst of terminal realism in a very bad way.
John stood up, from his back row seat, and threw his large piece of granite at me.
At times like this, when faced with murder and death, one’s mind thinks in odd ways.
What could I have possibly done to John to cause him to kill me? How can I survive? How fast can I fall off this stool onto the stark linoleum floor?
Maybe it was that I was in the Ethan Frome mode.
Maybe it was that the Good Lord had equipped me with an adrenal gland the size of the Pearl of Great Price.
Maybe it was that my peripheral vision had detected a hostile moving large object coming my way in a straight trajectory.
I hit the deck.
On the floor that was covered with chalk dust, residue from my exhilarating lecture the day before on irony in Ethan Frome, I felt the granite rock bounce off my back.
The granite rock bounced off my back.
It skipped across the floor three times, like the wafer-stones I had bounced across a pond in my youth.
In my prostrate form, my heart still hammering, the surreal became the real—that formidable hunk of granite was, in reality, a painted piece of foam rubber.
“April Fool’s Mrs. Sabraw!” yelled Peter and John.
Half of the class, the B students, roared with laughter.
The other half, the A students, sat mortified like automatons, worried that their teacher, the one who would issue their grade and write their letter of recommendation, might be dead or emotionally damaged. And couldn’t write that letter.
Dusting my skirt off and climbing back on my stool, I gathered myself up.
OK. Turn to page 14. There you will see at the bottom of the page, some excellent examples of stark imagery. Peter, could you read please?
“About a mile farther, on a road I had never traveled, we came to an orchard of starved apple-trees writhing over a hillside among outcroppings of slate that nuzzled up through the snow like animals pushing out their noses to breathe. “
Do any of you know what slate is?
It’s a dark grey mineral, the same color as the moon.
Photo by Cheri Block Sabraw 2009 From Atop Mt. Diablo An Outcropping