Peering into Young Minds

I’ve recently come up with the idea of  having my students write some stories. I’ve always enjoyed to stimulate their creative side and I have never been disappointed, whatever the request has been, with the products of their inventiveness. I thought about organizing it in a the form of contest, according to the spirit of the previous post, so I decided that each student of one of my classes (average age 15) had to write the beginning of a story of about 100 word length. After having chosen three (or more) among them, the students would have written their sequels adding a minimum of 100 words. No student was allowed to write the continuation of the part he had written, he had to skip a turn, but he was allowed to add new material to the other stories.
In the end, groups of students would have worked on the stories for the editing and to provide them with the necessary structural cohesion.

After I read all the students’ pieces I found myself in trouble with the selection of the three best, as they were somehow very alike. As I was looking for three different topics I chose for the following beginnings:

“On a cold and windy December day. Nothing was going as it was supposed to be. Jacob was tired of his work and he just wanted nobody to bother him, therefore; he quickly changed himself, put on his running shoes and went for a run in the park. He was running thoughtlessly when suddenly…”

I thought there were many hints: Why was nothing going as it was supposed to be? Why didn’t he want to be bothered? Was he a runner too? Here comes the second one:

“The girl ran. She ran blindly through the forest, with only the light of the moon to guide her, alone and afraid, cold and hungry. She ran fast, as fast as she could, even though she had nowhere to go. She ran, her bare feet cut and bleeding, her hair streaming behind her, a flash of bronze and reddish tangling in the bare branches overhead. She ran without stopping, and each time she fell she got back up, once, twice, three times, again and again and again, more bruised and battered than before but still alive, still breathing. Still running.”

Once again somebody was running. The wood had become a forest here, but this time she was escaping: from where? Why? I thought it interesting as it could have turned into a sort of fantasy story. The last one was a little different:

“Gary, a police inspector, arrived at home after an endless day of hard work. As soon as he opened the door, he noticed something weird. He saw two notes on a table. On the first piece of paper there was written the name of his wife and a strange picture of a padlock. On the second one there was a telephone number. He was shocked. After a few seconds the phone started to ring.”

That could have become a sort of thriller, I guessed, but I was wrong. Whatever the start was, mysterious creatures, dark presences, strange women filled the following episodes becoming thus all a sort of fantasy stories. I even wrote an episode myself in order to make it all more realistic, but no way.

So I decided to publish a fourth story. I had discarded it at first, as I thought it too complicated to continue it. Here it is:

“I didn’t exist. A moment later I was there. I couldn’t know how it was possible, but I was alive. The first thing I saw was a white marble table in front on me.
I tried to move myself, but I couldn’t. I tried to shout, but nothing came out. I was full of fear, but I couldn’t tremble. A couple of minutes later, a human being came toward me. He touched me. Suddenly in my mind there were billions of
numbers. In that moment I understood : I was a
computer.”

It was Kafkaesque in a modern way, maybe that’s why I liked it. By the way, I was right, only one episode more has been added and nothing more (Do you have any ideas?).

I decided to make this project in another class too, but even if they were a little older the setting and characters were the same: woods, forests, islands, deserts and to the list of the characters above mentioned, I could add even a torturer.The world they pictured in those few sentences was gloomy, peopled by strange creatures and dangers everywhere. Nobody thought about subjcts like family matters, friends, school or even love. Not a word. But why?

On one side I may guess that at their age they are rightly ashamed to speak openly about feelings like love, for example, but on the other that depends on what they watch and the series they are fed with. They mostly enjoy fantasy stories and their scary, threatening atmosphere which is full of anxiety and distress. The gloominess of that world seems to have affected them in some way, so that they apparently are no longer able to imagine positive emotions, the beauty of nature, the light.

I’m resolved about writing myself a beginning of a short story and it will be about love. Let’s see what happens.

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28 thoughts on “Peering into Young Minds

  1. I enjoyed reading the four story starters – and you are so right about how the series they watch impact the ideas they chew on and put out.
    I would use snippet from Victor Hugo to talk about beauty
    Cosette and Marius scenes…
    the Bishop who tells the Sister that “the beautiful is important as the useful, perhaps even more so.”
    Vak Jena’s rescue scene,
    Fantine’s sacrifice for her daughter
    etc.

    Hugo is my “go to” for love, humanity themes, beauty, change, and moments of awe.

    enjoyed your post

  2. This is well-thought through. If you give someone, perhaps especially young people, a creative licence to go anywhere where they go can tell you a lot. Perhaps this can be a positive thing though – you are allowing them the chance to use a platform to express that which is bubbling under the surface and maybe they are unsure how to approach. Very interesting, enjoyed reading 🙂

    • Thank you very much for your words of appreciation. I would like them to feel more free to express themselves . They are just following clichés at the moment, but they will learn eventually.

  3. It might not be either of the two suggested reasons (bashfulness/shame about those emotions — love, etc — or exposure to gloomy/scary things) . . . It could be they’ve yet to recognize — let alone describe — feelings of love, an emotion that takes on many nuanced experiences and shades depending on the people involved. Love involves affection, commitment, duty, sacrifice and can span the gamut of love for family, love for friends, love for a partner (that last one especially difficult during or nearing puberty as emotions are sometimes stoked by physical factors).

    Fear, on the other hand, is easy to capture and understand; in comparison to love, fear is downright simple (why populist movements rely on fear as opposed to love).

    There is another aspect . . . you can exert a measure of control when it comes to fear. Not so love. You can overcome fear. Not so love (some might argue with me but I welcome the discussion because I’m confident I can make the better argument). There is another aspect of love that is oh so difficult to explain . . . how it can be so close to hate.

    Perhaps I’m wrong, but thinking that 15-year-olds can comprehend (let along write about) love is expecting a lot. Heck, I know adults who can’t wrap their heads around the concept. Even adults have problems dealing with all the different aspects and nuances of that emotion as it applies to multiple daily situations encountered by persons in a relationship.

    Anyway . . . you’re going to write a short story about love? What will it be? Tragedy? Comedy? Sacrifice? Doubt? Duty? Commitment? One-sided? Triangle? Abusive? What do you think you’ll touch on? What audience will you aim it at? Will knowing who might read it affect how you present the story and what happens?

    . . . so many choices . . . I’ll be curious to read what you finally settle on, what aspect of love you’ll choose to showcase. I hope you won’t write about romance, but of love. The two might not be synonymous.

    By the way, this is a favorite of mine. It’s short, but I’m proud of it.
    https://dispersertracks.com/2012/03/22/flash-fiction-no-10-the-writing-prompt/

    • You are right to be proud of it : it is moving and, in a way, beautifully sad. I liked Ntexas99’s analysis too. In such a short piece you have been able to use two paces of narration: slow and descriptive at first, to hit the reader, then, with the rapid sequence of sentences of the tragic dialogue. Well built.
      I cannot discuss with you, because I must admit it, I feel most o the time you always have a better argument than mine – chapeau – , but I am lucky, because we often agree (every word of your third paragraph).
      For what concerns my expectations about their writing on love, I meant the perception of love a teenager of 15/16 may have and in a more familiar setting rather that woods, castles and nightmarish situations.
      I mean to write just the beginning of a story about love ( do you have one 🤔😜?) they’ll have to continue it.
      And, I’d be very pleased if you allowed me to let my students read your story ( I merely ask for these rules of yours at the end of your posts, you’ll never know😜).
      Cheers
      Stefy 🙋

      • I’m always uncomfortable with praise but I’ve learned to say “thank you; that very kind of you to say”.

        As for letting them read it, feel free to copy it (with attribution) or link it or otherwise share it.

        As for the beginning of an unfinished story . . . I have many snippets here and there but specifically about love? Hmm . . . I have a humorous one I did as an example in my “romance” write-up:
        https://dispersertracks.com/2015/03/17/romance/

        . . . but it was written for absurd humor (and as a break in stereotype). It goes thus:

        “She saw him from across the room. The movement of his hand as he adjusted his package drew her eye. Well, it was actually his other hand lifting the lower part of his stomach so he could reach his package that caught her eye.

        No; truthfully, it was the whole; the extended beer belly, the remnants of a cheese pizza on his pants leg, the unidentified stain on on his shirt (she hoped it was seepage from the open sore on his chin and not ketchup), the slack jaw, shifty eyes, and the way his greasy hair stuck to his scalp. She heard him belch and hoped his farts would be as loud.

        Immediately drawn to him and hoping her vast inheritance and ample breasts would be enough to make that man hers, she went to him like a moth to a flame. Unlike a moth, she was already consumed; consumed by his intoxicating presence. No, really; he had not showered for at least a week.”

        Not really sure where they could go with that. Not only it’s difficult to maintain the reverse stereotype, but humor is also difficult to pull off.

        The thing is that when you say “love story” there are some expectations and some tropes that come to mind so starting something without a direction in mind is difficult. I also noticed in the examples you gave above, only the last one gave a hint of a personality (ironically, a computer). I personally believe stories are about characters but many people think of action and setting.

        I also think one has to have a certain amount of empathy and understanding of basic human nature (spanning the gamut of emotions) to write something that makes readers care about the characters. Otherwise, it’s superficial and thus unrealistic.

        Thus, the start of a story has to capture relatable emotions. Something like . . .

        ~ 0 0 0 ~

        Lost in thought, Devin shuffled along with the throng of other students leaving the gym. Assemblies, although a nice break from classes, were no less boring than said classes. But not this assembly. Football pep-rallies were not rare events at the all-boys school; the visiting female cheer-leaders from the neighboring school leading this rally was a rare event. They cheered at the games but had never come to the boy’s school before. What occupied Devin’s thoughts was the cheerleader he recognized as the next door girl from where he used to live. Seeing her awoke feelings he had forgotten and could even now barely articulate. What had it been? five years? At least that. They’d been children then.

        Lost in thought, he was unprepared for the students in front of him making a path for the person making her way toward him.

        “Devin?” the girl said. “It’s me, Jen. How have you been?”

        Devin stood frozen. It seemed a long time but it was only a few seconds . . . and in those few seconds, a lot happened; his mind raced and panic reared as he registered just how beautiful she was. He noticed his classmates looking at them or, more precisely, looking at her. His palms felt clammy and he was suddenly hot. Not only did she recognize him, but she knew his name. None of his fantasies matched the current situation. Unprepared, inexperienced, and with his emotions in free-fall, he let instinct take over; the flight instinct. He looked away from her as he answered.

        “Uh, hi, Jen. I need to get to my next class.”

        And with that, he walked past her and continued down the hall, his panic mode now fully engaged and not allowing him to even think about anything other than going someplace to hide.

        ~ 0 0 0 ~

        How’s that?

      • I do like Devin’s story. It could work, good job Emilio. I’ll publish it this afternoon on my website (tinkenglish.it), and you’ll be able to see yourself their reactions. I was wondering…..any idea for story 4 ? Here is how one of my students continued it:

        “I couldn’t make out how it was possible that I knew so many things but I didn’t not how to came out of this laptop.I needed to calm down; then through my camera I noticed that the man in fron of me had a badge on: his name was David.I had to do something , but I didn’t know how, so I desperately started writing:“HI DAVID!!! I NEED YOUR HELP!!!!”. As soon as he read it, he seemed a kind of puzzled, then he asked his friend next to him: “Hey Jarret, is it you who has written this on my computer?”-“no dude, no-one has touched your computer” he answered. In that moment I understood that not only I could write human language, but I could also understand it.”Now everything is easier than before” I thought.“But still, I don’t know how to come out of this computer!”.

        Then: darkness.
        😀

      • It may be not so much that the story is complicated as much as it is, in a sense, complete. That’s my opinion of it because I think self-awareness and understanding of oneself is achieved in stories through the building of tension and conflict culminating in an intuitive flash of self-realization.

        In that regard, the story is complete with the realization it’s a computer. A new struggle has to happen which, in a way, is what the addition does. It sets up a new problem. But, it’s now a different story. But, that addition presents us with even more pitfalls. Meaning, there’s too much understanding of the self, to the point of knowing things like the difference between a desktop, tablet, and laptop computer. It might have been better to say “I was in a computer!” A small but important shift in perspective.

        The addition to the story also presents us (the reader and anyone wanting to continue) with both an existential and technical problem. Why would this entity want to “get out” of its natural environment and how would that be accomplished? The addition reminds me a bit of someone in a coma being aware of their state but being unable to effectively communicate with the “outside” world.

        The underlying philosophical structure is interesting but I doubt was intended; that is, the idea that the “self” may be nothing more than an illusion. Meaning, an artifact created by the underlying hardware as a way to manage and process the flood of sensory information. That would explain the illusion of self-awareness while at the same time not knowing the “how” and “why” of being functional and self-aware.

        At a simpler level, it could also be a way to express one’s own curiosity about where we come from and why we are here, but then the execution is lacking because it already points the reader toward the entity knowing that it doesn’t belong in its current state and that has other implications.

        I thought about how it might continue but I would go a different way. Acceptance of one’s state and leading the readers toward an external and more familiar conflict/story-arc. That would lend itself to having human interaction and conflict be analyzed by an outside entity with different perspectives.

        Or, it could be simpler . . . make it a quasi-supernatural/technical story.

        Discounting the latest addition, perhaps something like this (continuing from where it says “I was a computer”)

        ~ ~ 0 0 0 ~ ~

        Within the limit of the built-in camera, I looked around. I was in a morgue. I could see medical utensils neatly laid out atop the marble table and I could see what must have been a body, covered by a sheet, on an adjacent table.

        The memories came flooding back as did the realization . . . I had died. What should have been a routine medical procedure must have gone terribly wrong because the last memory I had was of the anesthesiologist injecting me with something through the IV tube as my husband looked on.

        My husband. What must he be going through? How had he explained what happened to our daughter? How were they coping?

        I stilled my thoughts and focused; my immediate concern was clear . . . how and why I got here would have to wait. The first thing I needed to do was to figure out how to navigate this new world of mine and then find and reach out to David and Lisa. We had always said nothing would keep us apart, and I was determined for that to be true.

        ~ ~ 0 0 0 ~ ~

        From here, it could go into her being able to communicate only with her daughter as her husband might not accept this computer “entity” being his wife whereas the daughter is more receptive and ultimately didn’t care about how but just that she was there. Or even other darker twists and turns involving love and betrayal. This is where, perhaps, personal preference in story-telling would shape the course and outcome.

        There’s also room to explore if there are “others” within this new state of hers and perhaps finding a mentor/friend/companion. Really, the Internet is the limit.

        Hmm . . . perhaps I’ll write it.

      • That was my doubt: the story in a way is complete. By the way, tomorrow I’ll discuss with the class and Simone, the author, your precious suggestions and…….let me know if you manage to write the entire story. 😜
        Thanks Emilio
        Stefy 🙋🇮🇹

      • Hmm . . . to be hated in multiple continents. It was never one of my goals but I accept my fate.

        It would be interesting to know what Simone intended with the beginning of that story. I suspect she (I presume “she”) fell into the “flash story” trap of which this is a fine example (with an ending twist and all).

        Like I said, there’s a big difference between “I was a computer” and “I was in a computer”. To me, the reason the story feels complete is because the first doesn’t raise any questions; it just brings an interesting fact to light. The second version of the twist opens up (expands) the story and can lead to multiple plot arcs. In that way, the second installment was on the right track but a bit premature because it doesn’t explain “why” the entity wants to leave the computer; the conflict it presents is not fleshed out so the reader is left hanging.

        Also, I made my character and adult but they might think more YA. I say that because while it’s possible for adults to write YA stories, I can’t think of an example where a teen tackles (and nails) adult themes and concerns.

        For that matter, there is one aspect of my Devin story that doesn’t ring true . . . his self-awareness of his emotional turmoil and his self-analysis of remembering feelings he had forgotten at the sight of the girl.

        I can’t remember that far back, but I seriously doubt I was that introspective as a teen. We tend to remember ourselves as younger physically but not emotionally. Instead, I think we project our adult understanding of our emotions and create false memories of the emotions we experienced as teens.

        If a teen had written the Devin piece, I think the description would have been simpler and rawer than what I presented. Not the reaction perhaps, but certainly the description of the inner workings.

        I feel a bit self-conscious writing all this because you’re the one with credential and I’m just flapping my gums, so take what I say with a grain of salt (or a whole shaker’s worth).

        For what it’s worth, in the third year of my Engineering degree, the English professor for a class I took tried to talk me into switching my major to English. I thought he was nuts.

        I’m still conflicted about it; on the one hand, I wish I had because it turns out I enjoy writing and as you can see by my voluminous contributions, I enjoy dwelling on and discussing these subjects. On the other hand, while I think I would enjoy teaching receptive and eager minds, I also read horror stories about being a teacher, especially these days.

        I assume it’s ultimately like most jobs; lots of hard work with little personal satisfaction and rewards outside the occasional bright moments when you can affect the outcome of something or someone and direct it to the positive. That’s the part of your job I envy; providing positive input to the few that are looking for it and are eager to absorb, adapt, and integrate knowledge into their own lives.

      • I can only tell you, Emilio, that every day when I wake up to go to work, I am happy. Even if teaching has changed for the worse in time and the consideration people have of teachers as well, I still love it and I don’t feel the burden, not yet – and I bet, never will.
        I said to Simone to read your suggestions and how you would continue the story. I’ll let him decide, after all, it is his story . He was really gratified by your attention, just like all the others. You see ? They don’t hate you.
        But
        ❤️️

      • Eh, they haven’t had enough exposure for the full effect to take hold. Remember my personal motto:
        “Making enemies and irritating friends since 1953.”
        It’s not one I’m proud of but in the long run, it’s accurate more often than not.

        Also, you might want to correct my erroneous pronoun (I literally flipped a coin as it could have gone either way) in reference to Simone.

        By the way, I meant to ask . . . the website is in English and the stories are in English and the writing doesn’t come across as written by someone with English as a second language.

        Are these students English-speaking?

      • No, they are not. They are young Italian scoundrels ( with a little help of mine). If you want to see their faces there is the Youteach area with their videos.

      • I’m impressed with both their writing and speaking skills.

        The acting . . . perhaps a few more years of practice.

        The videos are a hoot. I watched three of them (picked at random) and I’ll peruse the others when I have more time. I can see why you like your job.

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