by cheri block
Every Thursday night, I teach writing to two small classes of high school students. My bunch this session includes a smart little 8th grade guy.
Do not start your essays with a question. That’s soooo junior high.
Oh, sorry, Rohan.
Rohan smiles, sorta.
And so it goes.
This week’s lesson was how to write an engaging introduction to a literary analysis essay.
Just introducing the topic, I watched the high school brain begin to switch off and go into a rim sleep mode.
Have you guys ever heard of Beowulf?
All shake their moppy heads no.
You haven’t? Oh my god, that answer is exactly why I left the California public school system. You’ve got to be kidding me. You haven’t heard of Beowulf? What are they teaching you this year? What? I’ve never heard of that book. Are you studying the classics? OK, well let me help you along, here.
Would you like to learn about a total stud who loved to drink and party? A guy who cuts off the shoulder and arm of a troll? How about this humanoid’s mother, who lives below the water in a filthy swamp and loves to wrestle around with that studly guy?
This light-hearted shaming tactic works like an irritating leaf blower, swirling around all sorts of stuff in their minds.
Now, I call to my secretary.
Pat! Please bring in some Diet Coke to any of these fine students who need a swig of mead. [Pat hustles in with Dixie Cups full of Diet Coke.]
Well, here we all are in Hrothgar’s mead-hall, chugging our mead. After we go to sleep (something you little rug rats understand well), an almost extra-terrestrial blood-hungry monster will enter this room and begin to suck the marrow out of your—Rohan—your bones! And then, James, he will crack your skull in half and slobber all over your brains. You see, the monster’s name is Grendel and he has a bone to pick (literally, I add, but they don’t get my joke).
Now, to the topic at hand.
As you know, I too, am a student. Every Wednesday night, I travel over there, across the bay, to Stanford.
This news, to these students is more stimulating (sadly) than my dramatic descriptions of Beowulf and Grendel.
I slave over my papers, hoping my professor will give me an A.
Why do you care about grades, Mrs. Sabraw? You’re kinda old. [Everyone laughs at Kevin’s bravado.]
You think I’m old; you should see my professor. Why, he reminds me of King Beowulf in his older age. Speaking of King Beowulf, shall we view the introduction to my paper on Beowulf?
The foreplay has gone over its time limit. They are fading.
Up on the overhead, my introduction brightens the dark room.
“And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!” (Sendak 22) So said Maurice Sendak’s character Max after he had tamed a horde of monsters. This collection of hairy-horned beasts with talons and scale-armor, perhaps dreamed by a young brave-heart sent to his room for the night, has not escaped analysis. A master storyteller’s tale, Where the Wild Things Are, is about a strong-willed child who becomes a king in a land of rowdy misfits. He finds that royalty is overrated and sails back to a consciousness where his dinner is waiting. Max is not alone among literary kings who have done the same: King Gilgamesh of The Epic of Gilgamesh and Odysseus, King of Ithaca, journey great distances to discover their true natures. They too, battle symbolic monsters, but more importantly they wrestle with their egos in the process. In 800 C.E. another epic poem, Beowulf, is put to parchment. The Nordic hero fights two monsters in his youth and one in his old age. The monsters Grendel and Grendel’s mother serve as foils, juxtaposed in battles that emphasize Beowulf’s heroic qualities, but it is not until his final battle with the dragon–his alter ego–that the true nature of King Beowulf emerges.
OK. How did I capture the reader’s attention?
What grade did you get Mrs. Sabraw?
I might tell you if you pay attention, I answer.
I opened with something I hoped would grab the reader’s attention and then tapered to the thesis. The hardest part is the bridge between the grabber and the thesis.
Which sentence is the bridge? I ask.
Mrs. Sabraw, what’s a foil? Lauren asks.
Who is Gilgamesh? Richard asks.
Which sentence is the bridge? I repeat my original question.
Could it be the one about parchment? Ming responds.