What I Did on Thursday

Posted: March 31, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

A few months ago, I contacted my creative writing teacher from high school, Ms. Franke, who was and remains a fabulous teacher. Basically, I asked her if she would be okay with me teaching a creative writing lecture to her classes this quarter, on the subject of speculative fiction.

Basically, she said yes. And so, on a foggy Thursday morning, I got up in the hours of darkness, hitched a ride to Santa Cruz High with my mom, and arrived at my old high school…

The Fortress of Darkness.

The Seventh Pit of Hell.

The Palace of Rotating Knives.

Santa Cruz High School.

(Yep… can you tell that I didn’t have a very fun time when I was in high school?)

Anyway, I came to the doors of Ms. Franke’s new classroom (which was my Government teacher’s classroom when I was in high school), armed with three powerful weapons:

  • a pink cardboard box filled with eight dozen donut holes,
  • a folder filled with about sixty copies of Neil Gaiman’s poem, “The Day the Saucers Came”,
  • and my trusty Jayne Hat.

Sits sorta cunning, don't it?

Armed with these three tools, as well as my luck and my wits, I came into the Valley of Sorrow and Tears that is Santa Cruz High, and entered into darkness…

Or rather, I sat outside of Ms. Franke’s classroom for about twenty minutes until she showed up.

It was great to see her. Really, it was. I wasn’t aware of this, but Ms. Franke was surprised at how much older I looked. (Yeah, I know: I graduated high school two years ago. I blame the beard.*)

We had a nice conversation for the twenty minutes before class started, discussing such perennial subjects of interest as Michael Chabon and the divide between literary and genre fiction. She also asked me what I was writing, and I sort of evaded the subject, saying simply, “Oh, short stories, mostly. A lot of poetry, too.” I didn’t mention that the vast majority of my creative output was going towards my lame blog, because honestly, when I feel like writing for fun, then Axolotl Ceviche is the first place that I’ll go to put up my random bleatings and babblings.

The students filed in, one by one, somewhat glassy-eyed and sleepy-looking, but hey: I’m never at my best at 8:00 in the morning. In all honesty, I prefer to be unconscious until noon. But I had bolstered my wakefulness with some +3 Coffee of Eternal Hyperactivity, and I was ready. I had prepared myself well.

The first period class went along fine. What I tried to do with the students was to engage them in a discussion, rather than lecturing them. One of the things that I did was, essentially, ask them: “What do you think the definitions of SF and fantasy are?”

There were many interesting discussions to be had. Pretty early on, a student caught me using fancy twenty-dollar words that they done learned me at the univarsity, but when I realized that many of the students hadn’t been through the same sort of classes that I’d gone through where I learned my high-falutin’ vocab, I was able to modify my lecture to kind of talk more… well… plainly. We had a fascinating discussion about what it means for something to be SF or fantasy, and we went off on tangents (specifically, is Star Wars science fiction or fantasy?****)

Eventually we did a writing exercise: I asked them to write down a “What if?” question on a scrap of paper, and then placed the slips into a Jayne Hat. Then, we pulled out five questions, and voted on the three best questions. Then, everyone did a writing exercise (basically writing a piece of flash fiction) for twenty minutes based on that question.

Here were some of my favorite questions that people asked:

  • What if we had wings?
  • What if we could use technology to control our emotions?
  • What if you found the end of the rainbow?
  • What if oxygen was toxic?*****
By the end of the second period writing class, I felt like I was put through the wringer. For one thing, I had to be enthusiastic with the second-period class, which, while they had many good qualities, didn’t seem like they were very geeky. All the geeks seemed to be concentrated in the first period.*******
Furthermore, I was exhausted, physically and mentally: I tried to have a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and that’s not easy. For that, I should have drank more coffee. Or at least used some coffee with a higher enchantment bonus.
However, it was fun and exciting, and a few of the students who enjoyed it more than the others asked me about my own writing. So I mentioned this blog. If any of you are here from Ms. Franke’s Creative Writing classes, welcome. Feel free to leave comments below.********
As for me?
I headed home, watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, and fell asleep on the couch.
DAY WELL SPENT.*********
~ Ian

*Take note, young high schoolers who want to get crazy shitfaced: when you’re in a bar or restaurant, a good beard is more valuable a disguise than any fake ID**. Not that I would know of such things, being the morally-upright and outstanding citizen that I am.

**A good beard, mind you. You’re not going to get into a bar with just any kind of chin-pubes. You need it to be as lush and full as the Amazon rainforests. For those of you who are not capable of growing beards***, why not check out my line of Ian P. McJohnson’s Hirsute Helpers: #1 in Bearded Elegance? We have a variety of false beards, from the Rothfuss, to the Gimli, to the David Gilmour (circa 1977).

***This includes women. Just because your follicles are underperforming doesn’t mean that your beauty couldn’t be improved by a flowing, manly chin-wig. At the very least, it will help you pick up dwarf men in taverns.

****Pretty much everyone agreed that Star Wars was both. This surprised me, because I’d expected at least one person in the class to claim that it was SF.

*****Many of the students who chose to write on this prompt had all the people in the hypothetical society wearing masks. When I asked one student what the people in this universe breathed instead of oxygen, he said that he didn’t know.******

******Okay, fine: one person did state that the people in this universe breathed “sulfur”. I took this to mean that they breathed sulfur dioxide, and amused myself with a visual of a society of people with INCREDIBLY DEEP VOICES.

*******I had to explain to them what Doctor Who is. I WEEP FOR THE YOUTH OF TODAY.

********For those of you who were wondering about the books that I was talking about that none of you seemed to read, then here’s a list of some of them:

  • Dune, Frank Herbert
  • Neuromancer, William Gibson
  • The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation)
  • The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin
  • A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. LeGuin
  • American Gods, Neil Gaiman
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein
  • Probably others that I can’t think of right now. (If you heard any books that you’re interested in, and you can’t remember the title, just tell me a description of the book and I’ll see if I can remember the name.)

*********Yes, I did go overboard on the footnotes in this post. Tough. It’s my blog. I’m driving.

  1. Will says:

    Star Wars is science fiction, not fantasy.


  2. Will says:

    Wow, Ian, this is really cool. When I was your age I would have felt that I had little to share with high school students, and even less confidence in my ability to do so in front of a whole bunch of them. Props!

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