It’s graduation season, that bittersweet time of year when teachers say goodbye to their students. As most teachers would admit, they will miss some students more than others. Each class has its own character. Some groups are receptive to teaching, while others can be difficult to reach. Material that’s a hit with one class will bomb with the next one.
This January, I met an exceptional group of French-speaking students. You have to be exceptional — or crazy — to come to Chicago in January. We got off to a great start, but my lesson plan for the second class fell through. I improvised by giving a presentation about sculptor Edmonia Lewis and her most famous work, “The Death of Cleopatra,” which sat in Forest Park for 70 years.
I had told this story and shown the images to other classes: How the sculptor and her statue triumphed over terrible adversity. But I could never come up with a writing assignment. However, this time I’m collaborating on a book about Lewis and Cleo. So, with all of this writing talent in front of me, why not have the students help?
I asked them to imagine they were the sculptor or the statue and write about themselves in the first-person, using all the emotion they could muster. It was a tough assignment. When I received their papers, I was pleasantly surprised that most had chosen to be the statue.
Their papers were remarkable. They imagined the statue in every circumstance and packed her full of feelings. Their imagination, insight and sensitivity blew me away. The scenarios they came up with were actually usable for the book. More importantly, they taught me how to express the feelings of characters.
After decades of just-the-facts newspaper reporting, writing about emotions was completely foreign to me. However, that is why people read novels — to become emotionally hooked. The students freed me up, so I could describe the feelings of a piece of marble and the humans who handled it. Their portrayals of the sculptor were equally brilliant. My co-author and I decided to acknowledge their contributions by including all their names in the book, along with their class photo.
This dynamite group moved on but were followed by another gifted class of 24 students. Many were talented writers and three of them have helped write articles for the Review. The night before our last class, I had my first-ever dream about French students. I dreamt the whole class came to my house but I wasn’t home. My wife must have entertained them.
When I walked into the house, they were all saying goodbye. After they were gone, I discovered they had left behind a baby. A baby who spoke perfect English! At the end of our final class, I told my students about the dream. I explained that it meant they each had an English-speaking baby inside — even the guys. They needed to nurture this baby and help it grow into adulthood.
I was telling all of this to my daughter, Nicole Callaghan, but she disagreed with my interpretation. “No dad, your dream means I’m going to have a baby in December.” I was floored and delighted at the same time.
I can only hope the kid speaks English.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.