Lost Whales and Similes

A couple of weeks ago, my co-teacher handed me a book and asked me to read it aloud to the class. “I can tell it’s good for your soul,” he said, raising his eyebrows.

He’s right. There is nothing quite like reading to an audience of children (when they got enough sleep the night before). They sprawl, transfixed, on the multicolor rug, dull-nibbed pencils in hand, and I feel a shimmer of hope about a world suffused with screens. A plain old story—this one about an open water swimmer who helps a lost baby gray whale reunite with its mother—still retains its appeal. I wonder how each word, as it tumbles off my tongue, travels through their minds and leaves a frothy wake of associations and memories. And I remember how long before Apple products, we gathered around fires to hear stories through the medium of the human voice.

As we enter week 7 of school, these children aren’t just an anonymous audience. I know that one, whose name means “peaceful,” writes poetry and is afraid to jump from the monkey bars. Another doodles compulsively and makes sarcastic quips to hide his fear of failing. Another owns a hypoallergenic cat and thinks emotions are “the human weakness.” Another enjoys communicating with barks instead of words, and can’t tie his own shoes. Another fiddles with bracelets and gets her hair braided by her mother every morning. Another covers pieces of colored paper with math puzzles and can never sit still while eating lunch.

I’d forgotten how difficult it is to read fluently out loud. Even with practice I stumble over phrases, mispronounce words, need to go back and correct myself. I hear my own accent automatically sharpening, my “t”s tightening, and the ends of words growing crisp, like the first satisfying bite of an apple.

This book we’re reading about the lost whale is repetitive, but full of imagery. Perfect for young ears still learning to spot the tell-tale markers of “like” and “as,” or to hear the rhythms in a repeated sound. When I re-read lines with theatrical emphasis—”…LIKE the soft light of Japanese lanterns”—their pencils rush to paper like the scritch-scratch of chicken feet.

There are several ways to read. One is to be wholly transported by and into the book; to observe the scenes painting themselves within you. Another is to filter the words and expend effort to analyze them. English teachers are tasked with both: inspiring passion for literature while making it an active, intellectual experience.

Last week, the 4th graders’ task was to listen and write down similes. As the author compared the movement of sting rays to the rolling and unrolling of newspapers, I wondered about the daunting label of “literary devices”—similes, onomatopoeia, metaphor, alliteration. Is it necessary to have a fancy name for every time words compound to create beauty, or every syllable pattern that bounces from your lips?

In my own English classes in my early teens, I learned to dissect a poem or a story much the way a scientist treats an anatomical specimen. A simile—hand me the scalpel. A metaphor—where are my tweezers? Slice and poke the words enough and you will find the “significance”—or, so I learned to write on my GCSE exams in order to earn an A.

At the time, the entire exercise felt hollow and forced. Compared to the magic-packed books I read at lunchtime, reading in English class was a scavenger hunt devoid of meaning. Did I see some sense in it? A bit. Did I understand the profundity of these great literary works? Of course not. I was 14 and still preoccupied with the small subplots of growing up, like having a period, and my commute to school on the public bus, and whether I should send that text message. I memorized the themes of Shakespeare plays and Wilfred Owen poems and knew exactly what to churn out at the right time—first dalliances in the art of bullshit.

And yet, to name and analyze enables focus; enables the reader to understand the writing structure more deeply. Somewhere in the language areas of my brain, maybe all those literary devices are churning away, allowing me to produce more interesting sentences than I could have before. Certainly, between the sterile English lessons in my teens and now, life has softened me up and allowed beauty to seep into the analysis.

As a teacher, I wonder about the kids as writers and readers. Is it the exposure to artful words that matters, or the act of analyzing them? How do you balance the two? These are iterations of the questions I return to after spending day upon day in a room full of bright, wild 9-year-old-minds: Can you master skills without discipline? Can you be creative without first studying the rules?

As we continue our journey through the book, there is silence but for my voice, the class’s fidgeting, and the A/C units that perpetually clear their throats from the back of the room. I feel a surge of glee with every fresh simile. Will they notice it? Will they try it in their own writing? Will I try it in mine?

Words can so perfectly capture life’s tiny significances: a swimmer’s hand pulling through thick, choppy Pacific waters, or the tinkling vibrations of a baby whale’s attempts to communicate, or the sight of a shoreline awakening with the sunrise. I want to do all I can to bring wonder and joy to the literary scavenger hunt. Maybe it will be good for their souls, too.


  1. This reminds me of my school days and how much discovering what reading & writing had to offer. These early days are impactful & long lasting.
    So well observed & honest, as usual.

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