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The_wednesday_warsThe school administrator wants to know when my students will experience beauty in my classroom. He asks this question while going over our teaching contracts. A copy of what I signed back in April is magnified on a screen in Covenant Hall, a giant room that serves as a cafeteria and also a chapel.

Last year, I took my eighth graders here to practice reading Romeo and Juliet. We took turns standing on a stage, reading about two houses divided while inhaling the scent of bologna sandwiches and orange peels.

His question pulls me out of the back-to-school funk I’ve been in. I don’t like teacher meetings and in-services. They make me sad. I’m shaking my right foot and twiddling my pen frantically when he asks about beauty.

I don’t hear anything else he says.

Less than a week later, I’m standing in front of my seventh graders with a copy of Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars in my hand. Holling Hoodhood, the main character, has to stay with his English teacher, Mrs. Baker, on Wednesday afternoons because he is not Catholic or Jewish. He is Presbyterian and has no religious classes to attend on Wednesdays.

Eventually, Mrs. Baker and Holling read Shakespeare during their time together. But first she gives him a set of tasks that require manual labor: throwing out moldy lunches and cleaning Caliban and Sycorax’s cage (they’re the classroom rats).

I read the following paragraph to my students:

And do you think I complained about this? Do you think I complained about picking up old lunches that had fungus growing on them and sweeping asbestos tiles and straightening Thorndike dictionaries? No, I didn’t. Not once. Not even when I looked out the clean lower windows as the afternoon light of autumn changed to mellow and full yellows, and the air turned so sweet and cool that you wanted to drink it, and as people began to burn leaves on the sides of the streets and the lovely smoke came into the back of your nose and told you it was autumn, and what were you doing smelling chalk dust and old liverwurst sandwiches instead?

“What observations can we make about this paragraph?” I ask my students, whose names I don’t know yet.

“He’s grossed out.”

“He wants to be outside.”

“And what do you think Holling thinks about fall?” I ask.

My students tell me Holling thinks fall is beautiful.

“How do you know?” I probe. “Holling never says he wants to be outside in the beautiful fall day.”

No, they say, but they can tell from the way he describes what he sees.

“Does the beauty Holling’s seen change his situation at all?”

“No,” my students say.

“No,” I say, “but he’s seen beauty.”

I ask my students to try what Gary Schmidt did.  That is, write about a negative situation, but surround that situation with beauty.  “The beauty you write about isn’t going to fix anything,” I warn them. “Don’t make this into a ‘Happily Ever After’ situation.”

One student raises his hand and tells us about a time he had to cut his neighbor’s lawn and he didn’t want to.

“The lawn is enormous!” he says, and his blond hair covers one of his eyes.

“I really didn’t want to mow that lawn, but I smelled that fresh cut grass smell.” He looks at me to see whether he’s headed in the right direction. “I love that smell,” he says.

“That’s it,” I say. “Write that.”

I walk around the room as they write and kneel next to them if they have a question. One girl raises her hand, frustrated with what she’s written.

“There’s no beauty in it,” she whispers.

I read what she wrote and I learn that she’s upset because she is sitting on Georgia Avenue, stuck in traffic.

“Did you see anything while you were stuck in traffic?”

She thinks for a minute and then says, “I saw Starbucks.”

She goes on to tell me about a time when she and her mom went to the café, and ordered something with whipped cream on it. “It was fun,” she says.

“I bet,” I tell her and stand up.

“Mrs. Feyen,” the girl says. “I didn’t go into Starbucks that day.  I just saw it.”

“Right,” I tell her.  “Seeing it didn’t change your situation, but you saw it.  That’s what I want you to write about.”

Class ends. I tell my students to have a rough draft of a paragraph for me next class when we will revise them.

“Ugh,” one of my students says and rolls her eyes. “I hate revising.” She shoves the paragraph that she was working on into her backpack. It has pink flamingoes on it, and on this first week of school it’s bursting at the seams with work to be done.

When the last student leaves, I look out of my classroom window at the wall of trees beyond the soccer field to see if the afternoon light is mellow and if that light has changed the trees.

Not yet. No light has seeped into the leaf tips to hint at the last colorful gasp they will make before they fall from the tree limbs, back into the ground to begin again. The leaves today are strong and mighty in their green glory. They’re not ready to change, and I understand that the beauty I’m looking for brings with it a death.

I wonder if this is the beauty my new administrator is hoping my students will experience; the kind that makes us refigure things, the kind that is distressed, the kind that we choose to inhabit in our gasps as we fall to the ground, forever changed.

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Written by: Callie Feyen

Callie Feyen is an English teacher at Washington Christian Academy and a contributing writer for Relief Journal, Coffee+Crumbs, and Makes You Mom. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University.


  1. Laura Lynn Brown on September 30, 2015 at 5:00 am

    I’m going to look for this kind of beauty today.

  2. Shannon H. Polson on September 30, 2015 at 10:26 am

    Wonderful Callie, thank you for sharing this.

  3. Amy Peterson on October 5, 2015 at 8:18 am

    Yes and amen. I love that book, and the way it shows how the right book (or the right beauty) can change our lives. Thank you for this perspective.

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