Two essays that left a lasting influence

They were both quiet, their voices barely audible even during roll call, and absolutely silent otherwise. Even as a new teacher, I understood that freshman English was a class that most students simply endured, rather than enjoyed. I had not really enjoyed it that much myself when I had been a freshman, so what flint did I have that could generate a spark for writing narrative or comparison and contrast essays among my own students? Neither Steve nor David seemed to express any more interest than I had in the immense possibilities that writing an essay might contain.

Steve was in the very first class I ever taught, as a teaching assistant at Appalachian State University. He was on the football team, a red-shirt freshman who had played quarterback on his high school team, one of the Charlotte city schools. Not surprisingly, when the time came to choose a topic, he wanted to write about football. If I wanted a story, he had a good one. He had led his team to a state championship during his senior year in high school, which had been only a few months prior.

I told him that would be fine, as long as he stayed focused on the one game, and did not fall into the trap of describing highlights from the entire season, which would not really work for a narrative.

The narrative was supposed to be about 800-1,000 words or so, but when Steve came into the class a few days later, he was holding what looked like the rough draft of Moby Dick. His narrative was 14 pages long if it was a paragraph. I looked at him, completely dumbfounded.

 “You covered the whole season, middle school, Pop Warner, and every practice in between, didn’t you, Steve?” I asked.

 “No sir,” he said with a sly smile. “You said one game, so this is just one game.”

I took his draft back to my little apartment on the edge of campus and began reading. Steve had reproduced the entire game on paper, beginning with the kick-off followed by a short description of every play from start to finish for all four quarters. It was a remarkable example of recall, but as a narrative it fell completely flat. After the first three pages, it was all I could do to make myself read the rest of it.

Steve had done exactly what I asked him to do, which was to tell a specific story that covered no more than a few hours, and it was terrible. Now what, teacher? I asked him to meet me for a conference. I asked him what he thought the thesis of his paper was.

“We won,” he said.

We must have talked for an hour or more, both of us trying to figure out what he should do with his paper. We finally settled on a strategy, cutting the narrative down to just the winning drive — only a few minutes in real time — adding all of the sensory details that had to be left out of the first draft to keep it down to a “trim” 14 pages — and focusing more on what winning meant to him, which turned out to be much deeper than he realized.

Now, when I read Steve’s paper, I could hear the marching band, the crunch of shoulder pads colliding, the epithets of a mouthy middle linebacker. I could taste the mint in my mouthpiece, the coppery blood seeping around a loose tooth. I could feel the tension of a third and long, the thrill of finding an open receiver on a deep route, the pure joy of being surrounded by teammates and fans and family, regarded as a hero. I could see my father, that look on his face.

At half the size of the original, the final draft was a beautiful narrative, a genuine pleasure to read. I had never been the quarterback of a championship football team, and Steve had taken me there.

A few short years later, I got a job at Southwestern Community College, and in my very class, I met David. He had just gotten back from a tour in Desert Storm and had enrolled in school on the GI Bill. He sat in the very back of class, attentive, always on time, with excellent posture and piercing blue eyes, like Paul Newman’s.

I figured it was going to be quite a feat to get him to write more than a paragraph or two about anything at all, given his daily habit of saying nothing more than “here” when I called his name. Even when I asked him after class if he had any ideas for his narrative, he was noncommittal.

“I dunno,” he said. “Something.”

On the day the rough draft was due, David didn’t appear to have one. This is not that uncommon, and I cannot say that I was that surprised as I walked around the room collecting drafts from those who had them. But when I got to David, he suddenly produced a folded copy from inside the uniformly blank pages of a spiral bound notebook, as if he had performed a routine and particularly boring magic trick.

When I came upon his draft in a tall stack of them the following Saturday afternoon, I thought, well, this should be interesting. And it was. David had chosen to begin his narrative with dialogue, literally a voice in the night, the words appearing tentatively at first, like pinpricks on a vast black canvas.

“David. David? David!”

It was his father, just before dawn, trying to shake David out of a deep sleep. They were going hunting.

OK, OK, I thought. This is pretty good. A father/son hunting trip.

In the cab of his dad’s pick-up on the way to the section of woods where they had their deer stand set up, there wasn’t a lot of talk. His dad farted and made a joke about it. David elbowed him in the ribs and made a sharp remark, and his dad made one back. They gulped black coffee and complained about the crappy heater that hadn’t worked worth a damn in years.

They turned off road, geared down, and rattled their way through the potholes and debris over a trail that didn’t look anything like a trail toward their usual parking spot. When they got out and grabbed their rifles, it was on the verge of dawn and so cold that walking on the dead, frozen grass in their boots sounded like breaking ten thousand baby bird eggshells.

When they entered the woods, his dad broke left to the deer stand, and David to the right, to his lucky spot. But his mind really wasn’t on deer hunting, not today, and neither was his dad’s. Tomorrow, he would ship off to the Middle East to fight in Desert Storm. He and his dad went hunting all the time, but this might be, could maybe be, the very last hunting trip they would make. He’d be back, wouldn’t he? Probably would. But sometimes people don’t come back, at least not to deer hunt, or to happy family reunions. And when they came back, sometimes they came back to a different place. He knew it. His dad knew it.

They didn’t know how to talk about it. So they went hunting, and drank black coffee out of a red and gray thermos, and made fart jokes, and walked in different directions in the frozen dawn, communicating in the only language they could speak.

By the time I finished David’s narrative, I was surprised to find myself in tears. I sat and held it in my hands for a long time, letting its greatness wash over me, letting as much of it sink in as I could.

For the next 15 years, I read that story to every freshman English class I taught as an example of what can be done in a narrative essay. Unfortunately, I lost it in one of several office moves a few years ago, but I have read it so many times to so many people — literally hundreds and hundreds of people — that I will always remember it.

A few weeks ago — just days apart — I saw two items that jolted me, as sudden powerful confrontations with the past will sometimes do. I saw that Steve, the shy writer of the high school football opus, had been named as the new Defensive Coordinator of the Carolina Panthers of the National Football League.

And I saw that David, the shy chronicler of an unforgettable hunting trip, had died tragically and unexpectedly in his hometown.

These two students didn’t know each other and had nothing in common, except their enduring influence on an aging English teacher who will never forget either of them, or their magnificent stories. It has been 30 years since I have seen Steve, and 25 since I have seen David, but I know that they’ll be with me always.

Thanks for telling me your stories, guys.

(Chris Cox is an English teacher and a writer. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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