Monday, March 23, 2009

Jessica's Essay Regarding Jackie/Death

Photo: Jessica is 4 in the red dress; Jackie is 1.

Some critics believe John Steinbeck's The Red Pony represents one of his best works. It is through the red pony that Jody, the main character, receives as a gift from his father that he learns about death.

My daughter Jessica was asked to do a critical analysis on the book when she was in 8th grade. Her analysis was published in the Steinbeck Review (Vol. 3, No.2) from San Jose State University. The article was sent in by her teacher who wrote these words:

On the last day we worked on this book in class, doing peer reviews of our essay rough-drafts, one of my brightest (and most sarcastic) students shared with me that she didn’t care for the book at all. She looks over her four pages of writing, frustrated, and confesses she’s not sure she really wants to do this essay. “How come?” I ask.
“Well, it isn’t the writing. The writing is very good.” “So, is it the subject?” She pauses, “Yeah.” “So, has your life been touched by death?” I ask sympathetically. “Yeah.” “More than the death of a pet, or a grandparent?” “Yeah.” “Who?” Her eyes begin to tear up, her chin quivers. “My sister.” I take a long pause to process her words. “Was she younger or older?” “Younger,” many tears now. “She was five; I was eight.” “Would you like to take a break outside with me for a few moments?” “No.” “My life has been touched by death as well,” I say. “Similar deaths, two brothers – and my daughter.” She stares at me. She knows I am telling the truth. “Each of my two younger brothers died of cancer.” “My sister did too,” she says, “of cancer.” “Are you able to talk about it with anyone?” “A little bit with friends and family. But not much. Not anymore.” I say, “That’s what I like about Steinbeck the most, I think. There’s a place in his writing – in life, for death. Death and loss are a part of life. We have to acknowledge it – even when it’s not fair.” She stares at me for a long moment, a couple of tears running down her cheeks now. “I think he’s right,” she says finally. “As you write your essay,” I suggest, “talk about your sister.”

Jessica’s essay, it turns out, as I’m grading it a few days later, does not mention her sister. Instead, in her introduction, she has these words,

“Steinbeck was so great because he gave people not necessarily what they wanted, but what they needed.” And later on, “So while death is raw and makes one think they’re in a nightmare of eternal sleep, it is a part of life.” And finally, in her conclusion, “Most people don’t want to read about death, but need comfort – and knowing someone else has gone through it is comforting to some. Just keep living.” The writer is thirteen years old.

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