Then Fall, Mrs. Byers: Writing That “Single Moment”
July 21, 2021 § 29 Comments
By Crystal Byers
It was a day like any other school day—me, teaching the next generation, returning their graded memoirs, explaining the meaning of revision and the next phase of the assignment while traversing every inch of the classroom.
“Just because I marked up your papers doesn’t mean that they are terrible,” I said, handing students their work.
Passing back the first essay of the year always breaks my heart. Student faces reveal disappointment, and I do my darnedest to soften the blow. “I enjoyed reading your stories. We can all improve our writing—I know I can. Overall, we need to work on more action verbs, so I marked your ‘Be’ verbs—am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being. Just be aware of the number and try to reduce them,” I said. I looked my students in the eyes along the way.
“Oh, and get, got, getting, gotten, which are informal verbs. We tend to overuse them when we could be more specific.” I took a breath and allowed my words a chance to be heard. “I want you to listen carefully,” I said with another dramatic pause. “We will never ‘get rid of’ the word ‘get’ in our daily language. Did you hear what I said?” I stopped in the middle of my classroom to verify I had their attention. “I said, ‘We will never ‘get rid of’ the word ‘get.’ That’s just how we talk. But listen again.” I inhaled, then exhaled. “We can eliminate—the word ‘get’ in our writing.” I slowed down the word ‘eliminate,’ enunciating each syllable, pausing for effect and smiling a small smile in hopes they processed my point. “Did you see what I just did? ‘Eliminate’ and ‘get rid of’ mean the same thing. ‘Eliminate’ sounds more sophisticated, which is what we want as juniors in high school, heading to college, right?”
A sea of heads bobbed up and down as I continued passing out papers.
“Many of you wrote about some heavy, life-changing events that could be really nice college entrance essays. Universities want to know who you are and how you have become that person, so I want you all to have essays saved that are your personal best.” I spoke of the next part of the assignment—revisions. How the word revise means ‘to reconsider’ and ‘to alter.’
I kept walking, talking, and returning the graded assignment. “Some of you may have written four pages, and by the way, college entrance essays usually have a word limit, but a memoir should be just a moment in time,” I said. I spoke of showing versus telling, cutting superfluous details and exploding the particulars of one moment.”
Speaking of a single moment, just then my left foot stepped onto a backpack which started a slow-motion slide across the tile floor, my foot along for the ride. My weight shifted, and I heard myself saying in rapid-fire succession, “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” as if I had stepped on a child. I could do nothing to prevent the fall. I made an unsuccessful attempt to catch myself and heard the soft thud of my right knee bumping the hard tile. I sat on the floor wondering why ‘sorry’ in triplicate had issued forth from my mouth and wishing for wittier words mid fall—“Et tu, backpack? Then fall, Mrs. Byers.” I felt thankful for wearing pants instead of a skirt that day and wondered how I could gracefully stand once more and continue teaching.
My class very politely stifled their laughter, and I gathered my composure and arose as if on wings with strength and dignity. The owner of the offending backpack whispered, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said on two feet once more, papers still in hand.
Another student made eye contact and said, “Are you okay?” His concern was real.
“Yes,” I said. “All but my ego. Thank you for asking.”
Somehow I carried on. It was the last class of the day, and somehow I didn’t die of humiliation. Somehow I made it home, where I examined my knee for a bruise and found none. I would be okay.
A day or two passed before I finally told my husband the story. As suspected, he burst out laughing, the hearty, contagious kind that made me giggle, too. “You’ve gotta admit. That’s funny as shit,” he said.
And I admit it. If we can’t laugh at ourselves, someone else will be happy to do that for us.
Crystal Byers is an emerging writer and veteran high school English teacher living in Houston, Texas. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Houston Baptist University and continues finetuning her memoir Help in the Time of Schizophrenia. Her essays appear at The Houston Flood Museum and The Porch Magazine. Visit her at crystalbyers.com.