The hiking boots collapsed into a heap on the floor, crumpled socks tossed by their soles. The journey had ended.
“When is the story over? How do you know it’s over?” a friend asked me a while ago. We were talking then about the stories we tell ourselves, the tales we spin of memory and emotion, the stories that grow, if we aren’t paying attention, to define us.
Another friend, with whom there have been innumerable endings and beginnings, once said during a similar discussion, “Yeah, but there are always sequels.”
When do our stories end? When does the final page drop into blankness? Do we close the book and move away, or do the lines and characters linger, writing and rewriting us?
This morning, I came out to the living room to find my hiking boots and a pair of wool socks in a heap near the couch – a cairn marking the end of my oldest daughter’s trip to Hawaii with her class. Their group’s story is nearing its final pages; graduation, the final chapter, is in three and a half weeks.
And what a story it has been. I worked with this class earlier in the year during their creative writing block, and we discussed the elements of fiction: setting, character, conflict, plot, theme… the saga of the class of 2013 has had it all.
The story begins in different places and at different times, a rose-accented redwood building and a kindergarten smelling of warm bread for a few; a yellow-painted second grade room full of sun for some others; a room with blue walls echoing the sky; a turquoise room; and for at least one, a periwinkle room with a skeleton in the closet, a room in which their journey ends.
In The Breakfast Club, the students mock the labels the adult world has stuck on them:
“You see us as you want to see us... In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain...and an athlete...and a basket case...a princess...and a criminal... “
It would be equally easy, and equally false, to label the cast of the class of 2013. A writer, an athlete, a clown, a musician, a bookworm, a cheerleader, a brain…Nope. It can’t be done. They all have had their moments of leadership, their moments of triumph and insight, their moments of sloth, of minor cruelties, of extreme dorkiness. But, one day, during their writing class, they defined themselves.
Me: (discussing dialogue) Your characters will speak differently depending on who they are talking to. For instance, you talk slightly differently with an adult you don’t know than with a kid your own age, right?
Nodding heads all around
Me: And you talk differently even to adults you do know, like me or Dr. Tan, than to your friends.
Fewer nods, some murmured, “Not really…we know you…well, maybe…”
Me: And you probably even talk differently with your best friends than you do with another classmate you might not be as close to.
Blank looks dropped across the entire classroom. For an instant, all of their faces bore the stamp of the clueless, stoned out teen. Then the protests began. “What do you mean? We are all close.” The words flew from around the classroom, not just one clique, not just the girls, not just the boys. They rose up as one, and one sentence defined them. “We’re all best friends.”
This character sketch, like most, is at best incomplete, and certainly not always literally true. Like any good story, theirs has held plenty of conflict. In a school system where the teacher moves with the grades, theirs was the class that couldn’t hold a teacher. In the lower grades, accusations of “bullying” or “disruptive behavior” were sometimes tossed around. Their social circles collided, burst, and re-formed, over and over. They argue – not civilly, but in tones that crash off of walls and ring through the rafters – with each other, with their teacher, with their parents, with school administration. They do not go quietly into acquiescence, particularly when some deeply held value is threatened. Theirs is democracy – in its coarsest, brashest, and often most eloquent form. They form sharp edges and knock them off against each other, again and again.
Character, conflict, and setting shape plot. The events in their story have reached the climax and are sliding into the denouement of graduation. Solos have been sung and played; presentations have been given; the last lines have been said and bows have been taken. They have snow-shoed, forded rivers, won and lost competitions with tears and hugs for both. They have danced their last dances, and they have told their final stories around the campfire.
Yet, theme carries plot past the ending. When we close a book, the story doesn’t leave us. When we graduate; when we lose a job or a loved one; when we say goodbye, the story doesn’t end. The plot is passed. Events are over, and no amount of attempts can ever recreate them. Yet, echoes of those people, those events, the joyful and the abhorrent, remain with us, to be passed to those we meet.
We can choose which themes we carry. Do we bring the memories of squabbles or name-calling? Do we apply that interpretation to the next people we meet? Or, do we take with us the memory of a class united in triumph on a basketball court, or the sense of trust that can’t be quantified – the knowledge that a friend has your back, even though they’ve never said it?