I have asked some of the Grade 10 students who did well in their last writing assignments if I could publish their work on this blog. I encourage you to take a look at some of their work. I hope you find it entertaining - and perhaps even encouraging.
These are Grade 10 Megan's essays.... (Thanks, Megan)
The Things They Carried
An Essay in the Style of—
The Things They Carried
Course Level: Grade 10 World Literature
Student: Megan Cheng
Instructor: Mr. Cluver
Date: April 30th, 2011
Ryan McHaire carried the bare necessities in his backpack. A lighter, cigarettes, his pencil case, and the textbook for his next class. Some sticks of Wrigley’s chewing gum, and a leather wallet he’d been given by his girlfriend for his seventeenth birthday. Inside the wallet were his school identification card, his driver’s license, some loose change, and a twenty-dollar bill. Tucked behind his driver’s license was a love note that had been folded over so many times that it resembled but a tiny square.
Oh, and he also carried a silver handgun in his backpack. But that’s a later story.
She had been trying to get him to stop smoking. And he had tried. He had tried to explain to her that, it wasn’t actually the smoking he was addicted to, it was the lighting of the cigarette. He loved to play with his lighter, to flick it on, and off, on, and off, then on again, and watch the flame that danced along the cigarette, as if rejoicing at reuniting with its inflammable lover. And then the smoke that rolled off lazily in tendrils, with an aroma so mesmerizing, that he could just stare and stare at the burning cigarette forever. But how could he explain this to her? Wouldn’t she just think that her boyfriend was a nutjob? No, he had finally decided. He would carry this self-realization himself. Anyways, it didn’t bother him, this obsession.
He carried a love letter that weighed heavy on his heart, badgering him day in and day out. It had lain in his wallet for weeks now, just waiting to be slipped into an apron pocket. The little square filled Ryan McHaire with guilt. The fact that the little square was stuffed into the wallet his girlfriend had given him exacerbated the guilt. He didn’t understand, himself. How could you love two people at the same time? He didn’t, though. He’d figured that out after dozens of sleepless nights. What was love, really? Could a seventeen-year-old really understand the enormous dynamics and implications of love? He carried the question around with him. The question wedged between him and her when they sat together at the local diner. It created a barred wall that only he could feel. The question burned inside him, and tried to make him excuse himself from the table, and follow their waitress, who was four years older than him and already engaged, into the kitchen, and wash the dishes with her. She was Donna. He carried the knowledge that the person who makes the first move stands to be the big loser. This knowledge was what made him hesitate.
But his girlfriend never realized this. His girlfriend who had bought him a leather wallet for his seventeenth birthday. She thought he still loved her, and she was happy. But Ryan carried heartache in his backpack, in his wallet. He didn’t love her, he loved her.
Abigail was Ryan’s girlfriend. In her backpack, she carried a notebook that was her fountain of life. It contained all her ideas and thoughts and dreams. One time in sixth grade, she’d lost this notebook, and Ryan McHaire had found it and returned it to her. Did you look inside, she’d demanded, red-faced. ‘Course not, he replied, though secretly he had peeked at the very last page, and there was a single word in all capitals printed on the page. FIN, it said. Ryan carried an irrational fear of this word that seemed so final and demanding. Perhaps it was what kept him from loving her, he sometimes surmised.
She carried pencils that had been sharpened to studs, textbooks that were highlighted all over and filled with loose note paper, her calculator, and a planner. In this planner, she recorded study schedules, test schedules, and colors. Colors of the sky, colors of the sun, and colors of Ryan’s shirt. Abby amused herself by predicting what color shirt he would wear next, her boyfriend who was so predictable.
She also carried an inhaler. She was irritated by Ryan, who always smelled like smoke. Sometimes, it was hard to breathe around him.
She carried her dreams, which were condensed into the notebook that so scared Ryan. Her biggest dream was to become a published author of at least one best-selling novel. Or maybe produce her own movie. But she also dreamed of dying her hair red-streaked-blue, and adopting a baby girl from an orphanage. She wanted to travel to Venice, the City of Water, and sit in the gondolas, and write write write about scenery. Her dreams were without borders.
The general student population at large carried school supplies in their backpacks. They carried pencils, erasers, tissues, lipsticks, lunch bags, and pride. Yes, pride took up a large percentage of what they carried. They wore their pride, like their hearts, on their sleeves. It was hard for them to crawl up again after a fall, and some didn’t. They carried heartache, and echoes of the words “I just don’t love you” reverberating in their minds. They carried their tiny consciences, although only about half knew they had consciences, and even less actually chose to listen to them. They carried their unsettled contentions with each other and the teachers. They thought that teachers were abnormally brain-dead, and blind to what the kids could see so clearly. They carried the fear of being labeled a “tattletale”, and of exclusion from the student body. Things like bullying, laughter, and embarrassment, things like hatred, anger, and depression, the teachers never noticed. Even if they did, they didn’t want to get involved. Except for the counselors, maybe. Kids are vicious, at best, was the widespread opinion. The way to deal with them is to leave them to resolve things by themselves. The problem was that all the students ever did was carry these things. They mostly left their problems unsolved. So their burdens got heavier and heavier.
Sometimes, their backpacks got so heavy, that they appeared to be hunched down under the weight of the things they carried. It was as if what they carried was more than could be accounted for in their backpacks. Why does God so often arrange for children to be given burdens that are far too heavy for them to bear?
Abigail, Ryan’s girlfriend, carried the pressure of excelling at school. Ryan, she often thought, never has this kind of pressure. Why do I force it on myself?
She was an English and maths tutor. Maths on Tuesdays, English on Thursdays. She set her alarm clock to five thirty every morning, and crawled up half-awake to finish her own math homework that she had fallen asleep doing the night before. It scared her that she always felt so tired. She imagined that she had cancer, leukemia, because all the books she’d read pointed to leukemia as the cause of her symptoms. Once she’d told Ryan this, and he had laughed gently at her, and pulled on her hair, and said, silly Abby, if you were really worried, you would be going to the doctor’s, instead of chatting about it rationally with me. And he was right. She knew it. Still, she felt annoyed with him for shrugging off her troubles.
This year she had been assigned a boy at English tutoring after school. He was only a sophomore, but he looked plain tired of the world already. His name was—
Abby struggled with Jared. She tried to dredge up a smile within her depths, a smile that would show only encouragement, instead of the derision and contempt she was sure he had gone through most of his life. But when her smile appeared halfway, it would flicker and then die, like Ryan’s cigarette flame, when Jared looked at Abby with dead dead eyes. She was dimly aware that English was not all that she was tutoring him.
In Jared’s backpack he had a pocket-knife. He’d been carrying it for a while now, and sometimes, he rubbed the sharp shiny blade against his wrist lightly, trying to imagine what it would be like to slice through the delicate skin there and bleed to death.
When Abby started to teach him, she began biting her nails again, a habit that ticked Ryan off. He said it made her look like a child, a stupid, immature girl. She’d replied hotly, well I am still a child. So there. Ryan’s attitude towards her fluctuated between love and impatience. The constant rocking was getting to be too much for her. She had even begun to question her love. Or was it love? She wondered. Ryan didn’t even ask about Jared and the pain he carried. So she didn’t tell him. She doubted she even knew all of it herself.
Jared carried his parents’ divorce and his mother’s new marriage to an abusive stepfather, who wanted to put Tyler, Jared’s little brother away. Tyler was slightly mentally retarded. Only slightly, though he had a lisp that resulted from this. Speech lessons would have cured the problem. But the stepfather only worsened it.
Jared endured the laughter that Tyler’s speech stirred up at school.
At times, Jared felt that if he were given a gun and stood at the center of a circle comprised of his peers, his stepfather, and his brother, he would have no idea who to shoot first.
Jared carried Tyler’s shame and loneliness with his own. Jared’s was a double burden. At school, the kids liked to mock Tyler. They would stare Jared in the eye as if daring him to do anything about it, while they lisped and stuttered away. Abby had discovered that Tyler was Jared’s little freshman brother.
Even the smallest kindness elicited a smile out of proportion that bespoke the miserable existence of Tyler. Yet even the greatest assurance could not bring out Jared’s grin.
Jared, one day, unloaded a secret and added it to Abby’s own weight. He told her that once, he had tried to smother Tyler with his pillowcase. And Tyler looked up at him, with forgiving eyes. It all clicked for him, Jared said. It all clicked. He didn’t explain what clicked, and Abby hadn’t asked.
But the secret haunted Abby.
Jared had seen it in Ryan’s unzipped backpack when he came to pick Abby up one day. Ryan carried it for a project he’d been doing on guns. It was for a research report in English class. The silver handgun was his father’s, who firmly believed in the right to arms.
Jared disappeared for one week. Seven days. On Thursday, Abby was in her art class when she looked out the window and saw Jared marching across the parking lot and into the school. Ten minutes passed. A single, clear shot sounded.
There was chaos. People streamed out into the hallways, then the screaming began. Because Martin, a school-wide known bully, was slumped on the floor with a bleeding hole through his head, and Jared was standing next to him, holding Ryan’s silver handgun, and splattered with blood.
Martin, when he was still alive, carried his ego and bravado with him, and a gaggle of girls. He was always flawlessly courteous to teachers, and particularly merciless to the outcasts of school. Why do adults always insist on politeness from children? The ones who are most polite are fundamentally untrustworthy. Their good manners are a disguise. He was Tyler’s main torturer, and the first to die.
Jared was surrounded by people. The crowd of children in the hallways, and a few teachers. His torturers. Jared, who couldn’t even see straight anymore, began firing at certain targets. Samantha, who Jared had once crushed on, but who made fun of his brother and his dirty clothes. Luke, Samantha’s boyfriend, who was Martin’s buddy, and was constantly harassing Tyler. Mrs. Hardburg, who noticed the teasing in her class, but did nothing to stop it, and took it for granted that Jared was mentally disabled too, like his brother.
People are so blind. So blind.
Then Jared turned on Abby, who had gone up to him, and he pulled the trigger.
Everything happened so fast. Abby could only recall hazy images. Doctors said it was natural, that her brain blocked out unpleasant memories. They told her it was a kind of self-preservation mechanism. She was not surprised. In fact, she could feel nothing. It was like she had dropped everything she had been carrying, and was feeling numb with the loss of weight on her shoulders. She didn’t cry.
She only remembered this:
She saw Ryan speed across her vision, dropping his backpack on the floor with a finality that resembled the “FIN” in Abby’s notebook. She dimly registered a warm wet sticky sensation on her face and arms, before she realized that Ryan had pulled her onto the floor with him. The rest was black.
They later told her what happened:
Ryan had pushed her onto the floor, but the gun had followed them, and had shot Ryan at point-blank range through his neck. She was told he’d died instantly, without pain. She was told that “he was lucky”. Lucky or not, he was dead.
Impassively, Abby’s mind wandered. She thought it interesting that she felt no more emotion at this than she would if she had squashed an ant beneath her foot. She idly wondered if she was going crazy. The doctors said it was the shock. Shock, they repeated.
They told her that Jared had then pulled the gun on himself. There had been one bullet left. Just one. And it had gotten stuck in the barrel. He pulled the trigger countless times. Everyone in the hall heard the click, click, click sounds the gun made.
Then he’d dropped the gun, letting it fall from his nerveless fingers. And when it fell and hit the ground, it was like it all clicked together, like Jared said to Abby before, and the bullet shot from the gun, and hit Tyler’s chest, and Tyler fell, too, and the look in his eyes was—
The look in his eyes was calm and loving as he stared at Jared and Jared stared back.
Martin, Luke, Mrs. Hardburg, Ryan, and Tyler all died that afternoon. But Jared had died long before they had. Jared was hospitalized, and put into an institution for the mentally ill.
And Abby? She went to Ryan’s funeral. She had been told that “they” (it was unspecified as to who they actually were) had gone through Ryan’s backpack and wallet, and discovered the little square note tucked behind his driver’s license. The note had been given to her because it had been titled “To My Love”. They hadn’t read it.
When Abby read the love letter, the name “Donna” jumped out at her. But she didn’t feel any sorrow, any disbelief, any betrayal. How could she, at someone who had saved her. Why had Ryan saved her though? Why?
Ryan did eventually figure out love. He figured that he had once loved Abby, once, and yet his thing for the waitress was not love. He figured this all out when he jumped at Abby and pushed her away from the gun, because he felt love again when the bullet hit him. The doctors said he felt nothing, it was immediate death. They were wrong. He felt blissful, sweet liberation. Liberation from guilt. Liberation from the things he carried.
Donna went to the funeral too. No one told her about the note, but still she went. Many other strangers went too, people who hadn’t known Ryan. Donna was one of these strangers.
It is ridiculous to imagine that you love someone you don’t even know, isn’t it? …Isn’t it?
Abby went to see Jared regularly at the mental institution. She liked to believe that he was improving, but he was not. Not really.
Some people decide to let go of the things they carried, and realize it is easier to breathe without those heavy, heavy burdens. But others let the things they carried build up, up, up, until the day when everything comes tumbling down, and their backs and hearts break.
*Disclaimer: The author will not be held responsible for any mistaken knowledge of guns in this story.
Analysis of The Things They Carried and Other War Literature—
A Critique on Romantic Rhetoric of War, Honor, and Patriotism
By: Megan Cheng
Teacher: Mr. Cluver
Course: Grade Ten Language Arts
The soldier, as he trudges up and down hills of mud, blood, and dead bodies, is sustained by the mantra “war, honor, and patriotism”. War, honor, and patriotism have been so interconnected in the annals of history, that it is now difficult to distinguish reality from illusion. This blurring of the lines has led to the idealistic notion that it is “patriotic” and “honorable” to fight for your country. Glossing over war’s ghastliness blinds us from the truth. Government propaganda exacerbates this widespread fallacy by constantly campaigning for this glorified war. People invariably believe in the romanticized concept of war: it will bring them honor, and give them a chance to flaunt their patriotism. But when war is portrayed in such an unrealistic way, people tend to forget about the dreadfulness of war. Contemporary novels and poems have done their best to correct this naïve representation of war through realistic portrayals and descriptions.
War itself represents bloodshed and death. In “Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind”, a poem by Stephen Crane, a reference to “a field where a thousand corpses lay” provides a stark contrast to the title. War is not at all kind to the men who were “born to drill and die”; even less so to their families who are left behind, grieving. In the poem “In Flanders Fields”, by John McCrae, death is bluntly stated as a fact, which gives the poem a feeling of abrupt gloom. “We are the Dead. Short days ago/we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow/Loved and were loved, and now we lie/In Flanders fields.” Short stories such as The Things They Carried, Where Have You Gone Charming Billy? (both by the writer Tim O’Brien), and Marine Corps Issue (David McLean) describe war and its aftereffects in a brutally frank tone. First-hand accounts of bombings, weaponry, and general warfare are narrated in The Things They Carried, while Where Have You Gone Charming Billy? focuses on the terror that surrounds soldiers, and the psychological effects of war. Marine Corps Issue centers upon war’s effect on a returning soldier’s relationship with his family. These stories illustrate war’s repugnant qualities in such an uncontrived way as to contrast with the projected illusion of war’s “attractiveness”. The Man I Killed, a chapter in The Things They Carried, is a depiction of a man that the main character kills in the war. The chapter goes on to describe at full-length the corpse’s physical characteristics, and tries to rebuild his life history. The underlying theme of this comprehensive narrative is to show the reader that enemies in war are people, too, with families, hopes, and dreams. The reality of war, not its ideal image, leads to loss, pain, and death. It tears away the innocence of young men, at the same time straining relationships and breaking apart families. “this side up handle/with care/fragile/and send him home/to his old mother in/a new pine box/(collect” (“look at this )”, E.E. Cummings).
Yet what motivates people to participate in war of their own free will? “When can their glory fade?/O the wild charge they made!/All the world wonder'd/Honour the charge they made!/Honour the Light Brigade! (“The Charge of the Light Brigade”, Lord Alfred Tennyson)”. Men will fight for the perceived honor and prestige that is associated with war. They will fight to preserve their honor, even if they do not necessarily agree with the war itself. In On the Rainy River, another chapter in The Things They Carried, the narrator states, “I would go to the war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to…I was a coward. I went to the war.” The chapter ends on an ironic note; no one would ever consider going to war as being a cowardly decision. And yet Tim, the narrator, did, because the only reason he was fighting was to preserve his honor. The chapter provides a different outlook on the definition of “honor” as related to war. However, how do we define “honor”? In “the sonnet-ballad” by Gwendolyn Brooks: “They took my lover’s tallness off to war…when he went walking grandly out that door”. “Tallness” and “grandly” entail a sort of magnificence in the man going bravely off to war. Portrayed thus, the man seems honorable. Honor, nevertheless, is about being able to live with the consequences of your decisions. Many people come back from war, wholly changed by their experiences on the battlefield. Is it worthwhile, then, to use honor as an excuse for betraying your own beliefs? The warning that these stories and poems contain is to go to war for the right reasons. Honor is neither a legitimate nor strong enough reason to fight in a war you do not believe in. Honor, thus, has become the motivation for otherwise incentive-less battles. Honor is “unexplained glory…a field where a hundred corpses lie”.
Patriotism is another prevalent excuse for marching off to war. Simultaneously associated with nationalism (national identity), patriotism is most commonly represented as dying for your country. With the “swift, blazing flag of the regiment/eagle with crest of red and gold” flying above the soldiers in “Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind”, the readers can sense patriotism reverberating, which provides a sharp contrast with the “thousand corpses” in the field later on. There is widespread controversy over whether to label patriotism as mindless sacrifice, or doing what’s best for your country. An individual must not assume that there is a universal definition for patriotism that applies to every situation. Perhaps The Soldier (Rupert Brooke) correctly identifies the general view of patriotism. The poem’s speaker comforts himself in the face of death by saying, “If I should die, think only this of me: that there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England”. In doing so, he is able to come to terms with dying, by knowing that he has contributed to England’s great legacy. Also interesting is how, in this poem, England has been personified to resemble a woman. To endow the homeland with feminine characteristics is a clever persuasive propagandist tactic for men to identify with patriotism. Yet although The Soldier may be representative of the common opinion of patriotism, conflicting views argue otherwise. In the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”, by Wilfred Owen, the poem describes the horror of war: “the white eyes writhing in his face/His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin”, and concludes with the line “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory/The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori”—in other words, the old lie that it is sweet and right to die for your country. Another novel about war, All Quiet on the Western Front is the story of a boy who enlisted in war because he was told to do his duty for his country by his teacher. In the story, the protagonist is enlightened by his revelation: “While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger. But for all that we were no mutineers, no deserters, no cowards—they were very free with all these expressions. We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from the true, we had suddenly learned to see.” (p.13) In this narrative, we discover the carnage, violence, and hopelessness of war. When people speak of dying for their country, they forget that they are also killing for their country, and that the enemy is also dying for his country. When war is equated with patriotism, there is nothing farther from the truth.
In the words of General Douglas MacArthur, American general and field marshal of the Philippine Army, “Duty, honor, country. Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be.” To professional military men, their duties encompass honor and patriotism. But to drafted men who have families and loved ones, honor and patriotism are only excuses for marching off to distant wars that deprive these young men of their innocence, humanity, and emotion. Literature has tried to correct the misconception often placed upon war, and to demonstrate truthfully war’s callous qualities. It is ironic that governments must spend time convincing men that it is patriotic and honorable to fight, when honor and patriotism should exist, by definition, without persuasion. “We were still crammed full of vague ideas which gave to life, and to the war also an ideal and almost romantic character.” (All Quiet on the Western Front, p.21)
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