Oh, the stories they could tell!

The treehouse that we had built in our backyard when we bought our house eight years ago sits vacant on a breezy September afternoon, the last day of summer, just as it has for the past eight years. For reasons I may never fully understand, the kids rejected it like a body sometimes rejects an organ, so it just sits there, year after year, collecting spiders and the intricate architecture of their silk-spun homes.

Over the years, the treehouse has become a bed and breakfast for owls, squirrels, and assorted songbirds, while the kids grow up around it, both used to and oblivious to its presence. The dogs use it for shade, carving out cool, circular beds for themselves in the red dirt below.

From my vantage point on the deck, I have a perfect view of it, and if I had more time, I might ponder how an abandoned treehouse could serve as a metaphor. But I do not have the time, because the last day of summer means the first wave of essays washing up on the beach for me to collect like shells to take home, polish, and return. Summer is over, but fall semester is still young, and for English teachers, it is really just getting started.

So, here I sit on the deck with my thermos of hot coffee and a stack of narrative rough drafts, as acorns pop off the tin roof of the treehouse every so often like random strikes on a snare drum.

I read out here every chance I get. All summer, I’ve been blissfully blowing through as many novels as I can possibly cram into a few short months, but once school is back in session, almost all of my reading time is spent on freshman and sophomore essays and research papers.

Now that the county and state fairs have come and gone, now that the cherries have all but vanished from the grocery stores, and now that some of the trees have begun to reveal their lustrous red and yellow splashes of color, I know the season of paper-grading is upon me full force.

Every semester in my writing classes, I begin with narratives, a shop word for stories. It is a more comfortable and natural way for students to begin to learn the basics of writing good essays, since so much of what we learn and so much of what we share with others is packaged in story form. Eavesdrop on any given conversation at the grocery store or in the barber shop or in the student lounge, and someone is probably telling someone else a story.

Once they trust that I mean what I say when I tell them they can choose their own topics and tell any story they want to tell — as long as they can make it interesting to a random roomful of readers (a general audience) and as long as it has a point (a thesis) — the students relax, open up, and pour out their lives on paper in stories that are sometimes hilarious, sometimes frightening, and often times deeply moving.

As the hummingbirds swirl around the feeder and two squirrels chatter at each other in one of our towering oaks, I read my first narrative, the story of a young woman saying goodbye to her mother, who was in her bed dying of cancer, and how their many failed attempts to reconcile a difficult relationship suddenly seemed so very far away and so very unimportant.

The next essay was the story of another young woman, this one in an abusive relationship that she barely escaped with her life. Then there was the story of a family man trapped in a stifling, soul-crushing job, and the day he decided to change everything, uproot his family, and move across the country to start a new life. And another one about a group of young men and their ill-fated decision to steal a bunch of cars from a dealership on a snowy winter night.

Ironically, my daughter is taking this same freshman composition course at another college this semester. Of course, I am more than a little curious about the narrative she might write, the story she will choose to tell. For instance, I would love to know her side of the story on that treehouse.

“Not long after we moved into our new home, these men suddenly appeared and began building a treehouse outside my bedroom window. I guess my dad thought we needed a treehouse. He is really awesome!”

No, probably not. She’s got her own stories to tell. When she was much younger — probably seven or so — she wrote an illustrated story called “Tornado” that was simply fantastic. It concerned a family — much like ours — that was chased around by this tornado with a very disagreeable personality and something of an inexplicable vendetta against this family.

Later on, we developed a bedtime game called “Alligator Theater,” featuring three stuffed alligators that the kids had won in crane games or by throwing darts at the county fair. Their names were A.J., Sam, and Mrs. Jones, and they were the stars in a variety of improvised sketches, though my daughter would occasionally write a script that we would all have to act out. Everybody got a part. Sometimes there was even a part for our miniature dachshund, Frody, who seemed to have particular disdain for A.J. More than once, Tammy had to sew A.J. up after an altercation with the dog.

For years, Alligator Theater was part of our bedtime ritual. It has been a while since they have been on the stage, and I often miss those days. A.J., Sam, and Mrs. Jones are all upstairs somewhere, waiting for another chance to be in the spotlight. I can’t really say if they will or not, but, oh, the stories they could tell.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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