I figured out last week that it wasn’t going to work. In writing workshops I have often used an exercise with three groups writing dialog to tell the story of Jack and Jill going up the hill to fetch a pail of water. In one group Jack and Jill are pre-schoolers. In another group Jack and Jill are an old couple who have been married for 50 years. In the last group Jack and Jill are a brother and sister who fight all the time.
The exercise is supposed to bring out the differences in the way people speak and how you can portray character and move a story forward in dialog. It always brings lots of laughs. We had great fun with it a few years ago at Brestin School, but fifth and sixth graders in a private girls school in the wealthy suburb of Sandton are not the same as fifth and sixth graders from Alex. When I divided the first class into groups last week and told them what to do, they stared at me. Fortunately, I was saved by the bell.
During the week I thought, Okay. It’s the task of writing that puts them off. They all know how to talk! My kids in Tembisa had fun with dramas. We’ll do this as three little dramas and afterwards I’ll tell them, “Now write it down!”
I called for two volunteers, a boy and a girl. No one raised a hand so the first two who fidgeted in their seats got called on.
“You are Jack and you are Jill,” I said, putting my hands on one head then the other. “You are little children, practically babies, and you want water. What do you say?” Could I get them to open their mouths? No!
Mamochabo, the girl, finally mumbled, “Jack, get me some water.” Not exactly a pre-schooler request, but I was prepared to abandon that part of the exercise. Unfortunately, Jack couldn’t think of a thing to reply.
Okay… I had planned to call up a different pair and tell them they were an old couple and then a third pair, but there was obviously no point in doing that.
I sent them to their seats and started on Plan C. On the board I wrote, ‘Jill said, “Jack get me some water.”’ I turned to the class. “Now, anybody, what does Jack say?” Bit by bit we got something down. In the second class (where I went straight to plan C) we had quite a lively dialog going.
“Now take out a piece of paper and write a dialog—a conversation. It can be Jack and Jill or it can be you and a friend or it can be someone you make up.” A lot of the dialogs involved getting water even if the names were changed and they went to the river (which is a lot more sensible than up a hill.) A lot of characters ended up falling and going to the hospital as Jack and Jill had in the dialog on the board, but hey! They wrote something! And most of them got the idea of using conversation although the placement of quotation marks was somewhat arbitrary.
These three Saturdays at RoseAct have been challenging—for me and for them. It’s there inside—I know it is—but they have never had mothers who told them stories and asked what they thought would happen next. They have been encouraged to tell the truth and not to make anything up. Their games consist of skills, not imagination. My brain is already asking, how could I do it differently next time?
LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will permeate lives.
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