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Seeking an unseen world of words

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My daughter was struggling with her book report. The assignment required her to go beyond a synopsis of the plot of "April Morning," to delve beneath a mere recital of the list of characters. It required her to step outside of her comfort zone with language.

A seventh-grader, Hilary was in a bumpy transit from her competent summaries of the text to the subtextual observations her teacher was training the class to do. The time had come in her growth as a reader and writer to write about the abstract sense of things, the figures in language, not just the concrete details of the story. It was a painful struggle. It seemed like an unfair subterfuge to learn that words could be about something other than what they say.

"I don't know what he means by this question," she moaned, rereading the teacher's assignment for the tenth time. "I can't interpret what happens. It just happens. There's no interpretation. It's about what it's about. That's all there is to it!"

I remembered well the parallel scene in my own schooling, how one night I worked long and hard to make the usual time-honored book-report display by pasting a collage of magazine photos on poster board, surrounding my dutiful prose regurgitation of the plot, to illustrate the trials and tribulations of the characters in "The Outsiders." Photographically, concretely, literally, the report took shape.

When Mr. Katz returned my hard work, his comment suggested that I needed to interpret the story, think about the "why" of the story; think about the writer's motivation in telling the story. Apparently, the story meant something other than what it said. The writer had been saying one thing and meaning another. It was about more than it was about. Go figure.

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