“No, you go first.”
Here’s a chapter from my novel The Heart of Applebutter Hill. It’s the first day of the summer term at the Plumkettle Learning Center. Our heroine, 14-year-old Abigail, her guide dog Curly Connor and best friend Baggy – along with 5 other students – are all refugees from the Isle of Adiaphora. The students read quotes from Wordsworth, Rushti & Plato, and you might enjoy the portrayal of a rather unconventional creative writing teacher.
Writers’ Roundtable – from The Heart of Applebutter Hill by Donna W. Hill
Second-floor-west was quiet and empty when the two friends headed for the closed door at the end of the hall. Once inside the photography department, Baggy spotted students heading into the westmost of the two conference rooms on the south wall and followed.
The long, narrow room had a round table in the center. It would have seated ten, but the chairs on either side of the teacher’s had been removed. There was a desk off to the right and a sofa on the left. Curtains blocked most of the light from the south-facing windows.
“Hey, Baggy,” said Christopher, who was standing near the sofa, “I didn’t know you were a writer.”
“I’m not,” Baggy grumbled as he approached the small boy.
“Me neither,” Christopher said with more apprehension, “They m-made me take it.”
An older boy with long dreadlocks was seated at the table on the right side closest to the front. A red-headed girl with a big smile bounded into the room.
“Hi, Les,” she said to the boy, who raised his hand slightly in acknowledgement, “I’m Gabriele,” she added turning to the others, “I’ve noticed you and your dog. He’s beautiful” — Abigail recognized her voice and accent as the girl who stuck up for Christopher in the bathroom earlier — “I’m sorry, I don’t know any of your names.”
They all introduced themselves. Abigail sat between Christopher and Baggy on the left side of the table. Gabriele hurried to the front of the room and opened the curtains.
“Oh, it’s so nice today,” she moaned, “I can’t wait to get outside.”
She was about to sit down when she noticed another student entering the class. It was Tommy.
“Good morning,” he said smiling.
Baggy was on his feet, removing the chair next to him to make room for Tom’s wheelchair. Tommy paused before moving into place to gaze into Gabriele’s green eyes.
“Did anyone ever tell you,” he said softly, “that you have gorgeous eyes?”
She blushed and finally managed to say, “I’m Gabriele and this is Lester Fields.”
She was about to introduce the others, when she stopped in mid-sentence. Abigail heard heavy booted steps and looked back.
“Hi Laurel,” said Gabriele, “We’re all just getting acquainted.”
“Excellent,” said the girl with a cheerful though mischievous smile. She was dressed in jeans and a blue work shirt, her shoulder-length brown hair tied back with a Plumkettle kerchief, “I’m Laurel Hall. I like your dog.”
After greeting Tommy, Baggy and Christopher, she sat next to Les, and the two began talking quietly.
Thornhammer arrived a few minutes late wearing his usual black jeans and shirt. He strode to the front of the room without looking at them and closed the curtains. He placed a stack of papers on the desk. Pacing back and forth, he introduced himself to the class. He did not, to Abigail’s chagrin, take attendance.
“This is Writers’ Roundtable and I am Professor Thornhammer. Mr. Fields,” he said, nodding to Les, “Miss Hall, Miss Stein, you have all been in my class before. For the rest of you” — he looked to his right unsmiling and his gaze rested on Christopher — “This course is designed not only to help you refine the craft of writing, but to help you develop a backbone about what you do write. All of you” — he looked around at each of them — “are from Adiaphora, and as such I’m assuming that you have experienced the world in a more poignant fashion than most Plumkettle students, who have come to us from more, shall we say, settled backgrounds.” After pausing to allow them to absorb this information, he resumed his pacing and continued, “Now, “Who can tell us what the first form of literature was?”
“Comic books,” whispered Baggy. Everyone heard and everyone giggled, except Thornhammer, who shot him a dirty look.
“Anyone else?” he continued.
Lester raised his hand slightly and said without waiting, “Poetry.”
“Precisely,” said Thornhammer taking his seat at the head of the table,” We traditionally begin our classes with quotes about writing from respected historical figures. Mr. Fields, if you would get us started.”
Abigail felt her heart race in anticipation of reading her own quote. She could hear Christopher squirming in his seat. Lester showed no emotion as he opened a spiral notebook.
“Yes, it would be my pleasure” he began in a strong calm voice, “This is from Preface to Lyrical Ballads by the father of the Romantic era of British poetry, William Wordsworth. ‘All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.’.”
After a dramatic pause during which Abigail supposed that they were to reflect on Lester’s quote, Thornhammer called on Christopher. He fumbled with his papers and coughed before proceeding in a faint voice.
“A p-poet’s work,” he said before coughing again, “is to n-name the unnamable, to point at fr-frauds, to, to take sides, st-start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to…to sleep.”
“By?” Thornhammer prompted.
“And, Miss Jones?”
Abigail’s body jerked involuntarily. She had been sidetracked by the alarming, almost militant view of poetry in Christopher’s quote.
“The ancient Greek philosopher Plato,” she said, struggling to refocus on the task at hand, “wrote, ‘Poetry comes nearer to vital truth than history.’“
“Thank you,” said Thornhammer getting to his feet and pacing, “History tells us what people did; poetry tells us how they felt about it.”
Abigail fumbled in her pack and hurriedly set her digital book player to record. What followed was a lecture on poetic forms and imagery.
“Now,” Thornhammer concluded, “for your first assignment, due next Tuesday, you will each write a poem–”
Baggy, who hated poetry, groaned. This caused Abigail and Tommy much consternation as they attempted to stifle giggles.
“I don’t care what type of poetry it is,” Thornhammer continued, “You can write us a sonnet, free verse, a limerick, a haiku…whatever form of poetry strikes your fancy. What I do care about is that it means something to you, that it doesn’t take up more than one page, and” — he paused to pick up the stack of papers from the desk — “that you avoid using” — he gestured with the papers — “any of these words.”
As Thornhammer handed out the papers, Gabriele whispered, “He has a list of words that he’s banned.”
“Take a moment to familiarize yourselves with this list. I will not tolerate the use of these words in this class, not on paper and not in conversation.”
When he reached Abigail, Thornhammer pressed a stiff card into her hand. She fumbled with it and, after getting the Braille right-side up, read, “Professor Thornhammer’s Banned Four-Letter Words.” Her heart raced in anticipation of the words he might have included, but the list was a simple one: Like, Sure, very, fine and just.
“Ooo,” said Gabriele, “there’s a new one.”
“Just?” whispered Laurel.
“For you in particular, Miss Hall,” Thornhammer replied sternly.
Abigail puzzled over the words trying to reason out why they would be banned. She understood that some kids said, “like” incessantly, but thought the word had legitimate uses and wanted to demonstrate her awareness of this fact.
“But, sir,” she began, and Thornhammer turned to face her, “Isn’t l- … I mean this first one an accepted way of introducing a simile?”
Thornhammer did not answer immediately, giving her a moment to savor the possibility that he was about to praise her.
“Not,” he said at last with heavy finality, “in this class.”
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