No Symbolism Here

With apologies to any English teachers who may read this blog…

Think back to when you were in high school. Remember your English classes? Remember how the teacher would insist that there was deep and profound meaning in something that you were taking at face value?

Let me give you an example. A character takes a walk in the woods. You thought, “Okay. So the guy takes a walk in the woods. So what?” Your English teacher said, “Don’t you see? The walk in the woods symbolizes something. It represents the sadness of the character, the character’s loneliness and self-fulfilling limitations.”

Breaking news: sometimes a character just wants to take a walk in the woods. No symbolism there. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful, it’s pretty in the woods. It’s a nice place to take a walk. It doesn’t necessarily mean someone is sad or lonely or suffering from self-fulfilling limitations.

You can probably think of a thousand other examples of symbolism being forced on a story where, perhaps, the author never meant anything more than what is written on the page.

I was thinking about this because I was helping a person-who-shall-remain-nameless with an English paper recently. It was based on a short story and the person-who-shall-remain-nameless did a great job on the paper and I told that person as much.

Long story short, that person got a pretty poor grade on the essay. I think I felt worse than the student did because I had helped with the paper. Turns out the English teacher thought certain crucial elements of the story had been left out of the essay. The student (and I) didn’t agree.

It’s an embarrassing situation because my job is writing. I didn’t just decide one day to sit down and start writing. I took countless writing classes in college, I took writing classes in law school, and I wrote daily and endlessly as a lawyer. I like to think I can take a piece of writing and pick out what’s important and what isn’t. But I know there are plenty of English teachers out there who disagree with me. Who think that if I don’t see a deeper meaning in much of what I read, I am reading it wrong.

Sometimes it’s important to read a story just because it’s a good story.

Thousands and thousands of authors write for the simple joy of entertaining, and millions and millions of readers read for the simple joy of being entertained.

I’m not saying that symbolism in writing isn’t important. It is. But sometimes that simple joy of reading can be squelched by the demands placed on the written word. I would never make a good English teacher-I’m too literal. When I read a book I want to escape into the plot, not be bogged down by a hidden meaning that may or may not exist.

I’m thankful that kids today have the opportunity to dig deep into books at school and that they have the benefit of the knowledge and experience of their English teachers, whom I respect and admire. I just want to make sure that kids don’t stop reading outside of school because they’re afraid of missing something important in a book, because they’ve been taught that books have deeper meanings that the kids just don’t understand.

Because sometimes a walk in the woods is just a walk in the woods.

Until next week,


P.S. With a little bit of luck, maybe the cover of The Ghosts of Peppernell Manor will be revealed next week!

On a Personal Note…

It’s that time of year again, when kids are graduating from high school, middle school, elementary school, etc. The college graduates, for the most part, were thrown into the real world about a month ago.

Yesterday I was in the Hallmark store picking up cards for my niece and nephew (they’re cousins, not twins), who graduate from high school within the next week. They’re both going to college in August; one to a school in Maryland and one to a school in New Jersey. It goes without saying that they’ll be greatly missed. Besides wishing them good luck and much happiness and success, my hope is that they will avoid what happened to me on the day I graduated from high school.

I fell asleep in the sun in the morning on graduation day and got a bright red sunburn on exactly half of my face. This is what I remember most about my high school graduation.

May the memories of my niece and nephew not involve sunburn.

My eldest graduates from high school two years from now. I started getting choked up in the store looking at graduation cards, wondering where her future will take her and feeling an almost palpable sense of sorrow because she’ll be leaving home.

When I got home she got mad at me for buying kiwis instead of apples for her school lunch, and I was brought back to reality with a lurch.

A friend of mine says that teenagers were designed to be difficult because it makes saying good-bye easier when it comes time for them to go out into the world on their own. But what happens when your teenagers bring more happiness than despair? I guess that just means it’ll be harder to say good-bye.

My middle child graduates from 8th grade next week, too. She is headed to high school, where she’ll be introduced to lots of new kids, lots of new activities, and lots more work. And she’ll be in school with her sister again, which makes me very happy.

Forgive me for spending the next few moments bragging unabashedly. Last week she received an award given to an eighth grader who demonstrates kindness, respect, and service to the school and community. The award is a big deal, and we couldn’t be more proud of her. I have a feeling she’ll be just fine in high school.

My youngest and another of my nieces graduate from 5th grade next week. They are headed for the big, wide world of middle school. There they’ll experience different teachers for different subjects, lockers, moving herd-like from class to class, and a higher degree of independence. And, as I keep reminding my child (and to put my own riff on a phrase from the movies), with greater independence comes greater responsibility.

Graduation is a time of moving forward, and I think that should be celebrated at every level, not just high school and college. In our family we’re proud of all the kids, whether they’re graduating from high school this year or have seven more years to go. Best of luck to all of you, and remember that we love you.

Until next week,