My wife bought a wooden sculpture at a thrift store. Unusual, gaudy, frighteningly top-heavy, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. More precise adjectives than the three in the previous sentence I cannot provide, for doing so might undermine this post.
On the second day of my high school EN 101 (Composition) course, she delivered her prized sculpture to my classroom. I’d asked her to let me take it, but with a laugh, she told me that wasn’t going to happen as long as I was riding my bicycle to school.
“And be careful with it,” she instructed as she relinquished the piece. “It’s fragile.”
Okay, there’s one more adjective.
Fifteen students looked on as if I’d just been handed a stuffed meerkat or a bowl of balut, exotics we don’t see often in rural South Carolina. Silently, I placed the sculpture on the table, stood back, and allowed raised eyes and fresh brains to scrutinize the curiosity before them.
“Your assignment is to describe this.” They moaned, already bored with another mindless descriptive assignment. “But there’s one caveat: Use no adjectives, adverbs, or proper nouns.”
“In fact, no talking at all. Study it; take a closer look. Touch it carefully, but do not share your ideas.”
For twenty minutes they scribbled, scratched, annotated, erased, and synthesized. At last, I asked for their descriptions.
“This was hard,” a student said. “I didn’t realize how much I depend on adjectives.”
I shuffled the stack and prepared to read. “The thing looks like a leaf. It has veins and is shaped like a triangle.”
“Good metaphors,” I said.
“Somebody used the word thing,” a student added. “We can do better than that.”
“It reminds me of a feather,” another writer imagined.
“But what kind of feather?”
“I can’t tell you,” the author quipped. “That would mean using adjectives.”
“She has a history,” I read. “Once a tree, somebody cut her down and carved from what was left of her an object that resembles the leaf of a willow. The wood is the color of river sand. Through the leaf runs a rod, like rebar, and it holds the sculpture to a base made of wood. She longs to once again be a tree, to feel wind in her leaves. She longs for her past.”
We listened to the description devoid of adjectives, and in our minds a picture emerged. Students looked at each other in surprise, for they weren’t sure one of their own had the ability to create such an image, much less an archetypal story.
The years have taught me that students want to be challenged, that they thrive on the intensity that comes from having to create without sufficient tools – in this case, adjectives. What this deprivation promotes, though, is the necessary push beyond that which is easy to that which requires innovation.
Our students will usually venture to the boundaries we set, but if we make those boundaries too narrow, we deny students the opportunity to test their imaginations.
What was the sculpture? A leaf? A feather? A tree long dead turned into an object of curiosity? No matter, for if given the chance, our students will help us see the world around them in a new light. All we have to do is provide the initial motivation and a gentle nudge. Then, and only then, might those ubiquitous descriptive assignments become extraordinary.