Volume II - 1994
Daydreams and Nightmares: The Need for the Imagination in Student Writing
by Steven Haber
Dr. Steve Haber, Coordinator of ESL at Jersey City State College, received the Mary Finocchiario Award at TESOL Vancouver (1992) for a book he co-authored, In Our Own Words (St. Martin's Press). A graduate of Columbia University, Dr. Haber, whose interests include Computer Assisted Language Learning , is designing a state-of-the-art lab at his College.
A few years ago, I was teaching an ESL College Writing class and came across the following essay written by one of my students from Vietnam. Although it has been edited slightly, the content is essentially the student's.
I cried a lot when my grandfather was gone forever. No one could replace his position in my heart. I was too young to understand what death is and why men have to die. I thought that my grandfather just slept and I hoped that he would awaken to play with me, and take me to his small garden.
Besides my parents, my grandfather was the one who loved me the most. He was more than my grandpa; he really was my best friend. My uncles and aunts loved me too, but they just loved me as a lovely kid.
My extended family lived in a big house in the suburbs. Everybody in my family went to work so I was at home with my grandfather and a housemaid. In the place we lived, there were only a few children, so my grandfather was the only one who played with me.
We had a big garden which was planted with fruit trees such as cherries, mangoes, guavas, bananas..., but I preferred my grandfather's garden. It was a piece of land beside my house. My grandfather planted a lot of flowers such as roses, chrysanthemums, lilies, and several kinds of orchids. My father called him an amateur botanist. He also planted cactus, ornamental plants, and bonsai trees. My grandfather shaped plants into animal shapes and other nice shapes. There were two dragons, four herons, and some deer in the garden.
Everyday, my grandfather and I watered and took care of the garden. He taught me how to garden and trim the plants. When I did wrong, he never got angry. He just smiled and encouraged me. He knew I was too young to do well in everything he showed.
On nice days, my grandfather took me out to go fishing at the lake near our house. I liked these days very much, because I had a chance to go out, see nature, run about everywhere. I sat beside my grandfather to see him fish under the shadow of the trees. You know, I always cried out when he caught a fish. Sometimes he let me try. I was very happy when I pulled up a fish by myself. I liked to sleep with my grandfather because he usually told me fairy tales. The prince, princess, king, and angel in his stories always appeared in my nice dreams. I usually fell asleep before he finished the story, and he would continue it the next night.
When my grandfather passed away, I felt something break in my heart. Everything in his room and his garden reminded me of him.
As so often happens when I ask my students to write about an influential person in their lives, I was very much moved by this little essay. It was so rich in detail; the garden with its tropical fruits and exotic flowers, the bonsai trees and topiary. I could picture the little boy and his grandfather wandering together through the garden, protected from the brutal war that was raging in the countryside, safe within the suburbs of Saigon which never felt much of the death and bloodshed until the very last days of the war.
And then there was the poignancy of the end. The grandfather had died. The garden was no more. The peace and gentility of Saigon had finally been violated as the new government marched in with its flags and slogans, ready to take revenge for the 25 year of senseless war against the only available enemies left: the intellectuals, the merchant class, the ethnic Chinese and anyone else who had ever been associated with the government of the South.
Although he never spoke much about his past, I am sure that Tam's family had been among these persecuted groups, as had been so many of the Vietnamese students I have taught. What else could have driven them to flee at night in tiny boats across treacherous waters only to languish in refugee camps for years waiting for visas to enter the United States.
So it was not just Tam's story about his grandfather that had moved me, but its historical and personal context. This little reminiscence without any references to the war and its ensuing suffering spoke volumes about the tragedy that was Vietnam, and the suffering of its people.
But the story isn't over yet. A year after Tam had left my class (and gone on to become a National Honor student), his sister Tuan began to study with me, although I did not know they were related at the time. When we came to the assignment to write about an influential person, I brought out Tam's essay and read it to the class as I often do with good student writing. I have found that students love to read, and are inspired by, the work of their peers.
As I read Tam's essay aloud, I struggled to choke back tears as I could not help but resurrect the feelings of sadness not only for Tam personally at the loss of hi grandfather, but also for the multiplication of this tragedy so many millions of times over from the war and its aftermath. As I read, the whole class was rapt in the way that people become when they are witnessing drama together. Again, it was not the essay alone that had moved them, but our collective reaction to it.
After I finished reading, we sat silently for a moment regaining composure. It was then that Tuan raised her hand.
"You know," she said, "Tam is my brother."
Thoughts and questions started racing through my mind. Would she be able to tell us more? Reveal some crucial detail that Tam had not included in his essay that would change everything? I began to question her gently in front of the class. "So you are Tam's sister. Then you must have known your grandfather too." "No," she smiled, "I never met him, and Tam didn't either. You see, our grandfather died before Tam was born."
As much as we had all been brought to the brink of tears by Tam's essay, we, the students and myself, were now on the brink of apoplexy.
"And the garden, was there one?"
"No," she said, "We lived in a flat. Tam is always making up those stories."
At first I could not believe it, but something about the way she said it made me believe her. It did not seem like something she would lie about, especially in front of the class.
A few days later, I ran into Tam on the campus and asked him if what his sister had told me was true. He grinned and turned bright red, nodding. But why had he done it? He simply grinned, but did not answer.
My first reaction was a feeling of betrayal. Here was one of my best students passing off as factual an essay which could only be described as fiction; very good fiction, but fiction nonetheless. I felt as if I had been cheated, manipulated into feeling sympathy for the loss of a relationship that had never even existed. But then again, this was not the first time that I had to explain to a student the difference between fact and fiction. And the essay, no matter what its origin, remains undiminished as a fine piece of writing. I decided to forgive Tam, although I warned him not to do this again.
As the years passed, I have continued to use this essay in my classes but now after each reading, I ask my students if they think this is a true story. They shake their heads in puzzlement and sometimes howl in disbelief when I tell them that this is indeed a work of fiction. Then I ask them if it changes the story for them, knowing it is not true.
Some have said it ruined the story for them, feeling as I did initially, that the trust between reader and writer had been violated. But there were others who said, "What difference does it make? What matters is the story itself. If the author is clever enough to make everyone believe it really happened, isn't that a sign of talent and good writing?"
Year after year, the debate goes on, each time occasioning further reflection on the nature of fact and fantasy in student writing. The question I keep asking myself is the same one I asked Tam that day on the campus, the one he did not answer--why write an essay about a relationship that never existed?
Fantasy in Human Experience
Perhaps it has to do with the role of fantasy in human experience. Fantasy, like language itself, is not simply something human beings use to amuse themselves. It is a human need. People don't just fantasize to escape boredom or to provide material for writing assignments, they do it to fill empty places in their lives. I am reminded of Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman in which the protagonist, Molina, creates for himself a rich and elaborate fantasy life based on the stories of 1940's Hollywood movies because this is the only way he can survive in a world that is brutal beyond endurance. The fantasy for him becomes a refuge, a place to preserve whatever it is about him that is human.
I am not saying that Tam wrote about his grandfather as a refuge against atrocity, although I am sure he has seen his share of it. Yet I can not help but feel that this fictitious grandfather and his wonderful imaginary garden helped to fulfill in Tam a real need, perhaps for the tranquility that had been stolen from him, first by war, then by the communists, and finally by the flight from his home to a land where the struggle to survive robbed him of peace once more. For Tam, the absence of a real grandfather, a real garden, were mere details. He needed them in his life, so he created them, much the way someone might bang in a nail with the heel of a shoe if no hammer is readily available. The imagination permits us to fill in the details that God or nature or luck carelessly left out.
Take the example of another student, Vladimir Kuchinsky from the former Soviet Union. Driven by political problems and a desire to discover what he would become in the West, at age 50, he left a prestigious job as a metallurgical engineer and emigrated to the United States. He quickly found a job as an office cleaner and shortly after that began studying English. When I met him, he was in his first year of College in an intermediate level ESL Writing class. At least once a semester, I assign a "free topic". That is, the students are free to write about any topic they choose. Usually there is a brain-storming session and some discussion to narrow the topics or to select those which would be of greatest interest to readers, but essentially, the students are left on their own. The following essay, also slightly edited, was Vlamidir's.
The Pink Fatamorgana*
"Do not listen to the alarm clock if you see a good dream."
Faraway from this sinful planet, somewhere in space, is another planet--"The Pink Fatamorgana". I have been up there almost every night. Every night something new has happened in the Pink Fatamorgana. There is not such a thing like night or afternoon. Everything is up to you. If you want to see night--you see night. If you want to see day--you see day.
There is not such a thing like money or army, real estate or policemen. There is not such a thing as shame, debauchery and corruption. There is no enemy or terrorist. There is no fascism or communism. There is no other color--except pink.
It was early in the morning. I was walking down the pink field, and watching pink clouds in the pink heaven. Something unusual happened this morning. The pink clouds were flying for a while, and later they formed a beautiful pink lady who was playing on a piano a Chopin sonata. From the first sight, I fell in love.
The lady gracefully stepped down from the pink heaven to the pink field. She was walking toward me. My head was turned, and my heart went down to my feet.
"My darling," she said, "I have been waiting for you in the Pink Fatamorgana almost 2,000 years. Where have you been all this time?"
I felt that my heart stopped beating and my blood was going out from my body.
At this time, the alarm clock woke me up. It was 5:30 in the morning. I found myself in the gray room with icy cold water in the bathroom. I had to hurry up to be on time. I was walking down the gray street, in the most gray neighborhood, in the gray Brooklyn, to the gray subway station. The gray people surrounded me in the gray train. When I closed my gray eyes in the gray car, I saw my Pink Fatamorgana, and my dream repeated again.
Somewhere in space there is another planet, the planet called "The Pink Fatamorgana." I hope in the future I'll fly there. My pink goddess will meet me up there. We will be together forever. Nobody could separate us from each other. It will be there in the beautiful pink morning.
In this essay, more so than in Tam's, the references to the disappointments of "real life" are more direct; "There is not such a thing like money or army, real estate or policemen. There is not such a thing as shame, debauchery and corruption. There is no enemy or terrorist. There is no fascism or communism." Clearly all of these had tortured Vladimir in his life in one form or another, as did the "grayness" of his present circumstances. Yet, he is able to create for himself a refuge, a pink fatamorgana, which, like Tam's garden, becomes a kind of haven from a world that so often fails to measure up to even the humblest expectations.
Aside from the possible therapeutic value such fantasies might have upon student writers, what other implications might there be for language learning in general? What immediately comes to mind is the work of Earl Stevick who postulated that the deeper the learner's emotional involvement in a communicative act, the greater the chances that the language used in that act would become acquired in long term memory.
As Tam or Vladimir were weaving together the images for their fantasy worlds, they needed to reach deep within the language within them and the language they did not yet know. For example, it is unlike that words such as "chrysanthemums, "lilies", "orchids", "herons" or "bonsai trees" were part of Tam's everyday vocabulary. These are words he probably had to look up. Yet in the essay, these words become part of the imagistic landscape. Not only does the writer have a real communicative context for these words as he struggles to make the reader "see" what exists only in the writer's mind, the new words become deeply embedded in the associative matrix of thought, memory, and desire that motivated the writing in the first place. The result is that these words become acquired in long term memory, if not to be used again immediately, at least recognizable when they are encountered in other contexts.
In exploring the imagination, students fulfill a human need to bring into existence that which the real world has neglected to provide. At the same time, the struggle to bring images to the surface--images from this imaginary world--becomes an occasion for acquiring language in a deep and lasting way. By encouraging this kind of exploration, teachers can help students discover the worlds within themselves and the language needed to bring those worlds to others.
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