Saturday, September 17, 2011

Back to School Thoughts

There's a great line in "You've Got Mail" when Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are talking about the beginning of school and she mentions she loves the smell of new pencils. There are school smells that become ingrained into your nose and when you smell them you know you are in a school. For me it was the fresh paint and freshly waxed floors that I remembered. When I thought about the lunchrooms of the many schools in which I taught the odd combination of tuna fish and meatloaf was in my head. In classrooms the aroma of chalk dust and an indefinable smell of old books, a musty almost mildew smell telling me I was in a classroom. You could blindfold me and put me in the middle of a school and I could identify it on the first day of the year.

I think as a writer, the only way you can convey the idea of a place is by using your senses. Readers, and I am one of them too, love to be transported into the places you write about. They want to feel like they are standing in that hallway and talking to their friends. They want to know that they are experiencing what the character is doing in a way that explains the action so as a reader you don't have any questions about the scene. This is something that as a teacher I always tried to convey to my fledgeling writers I was teaching and I tried to tell them it would make their writing come alive!

This time of the year always reminds me of apples, since this was the decoration I used to place in my classrooms. The smells of fall and sights of fall are also there as the days grow colder. The leaves begin to turn and I have written several poems about the leaves as they change with the season. If your story is going to continue into fall I think it's important to bring the reader into it as well. Remember the day when the world was all golden from the leaves covering the ground and let the reader see and smell the scenery. I as a reader love to remember moments from my own experience and want to read those kinds of scenes in books that I read.

Also the beginning of school brings new relationships for kids who are just beginning to learn how to interact in a more independent way. When old friends are suddenly faced with a new person how do they react? How would you react if your old friend suddenly became friendly with her enemy? These are the kinds of questions kids face when they start a new school year. It's not all academics and the kids who can't get a handle on facing these kinds of relationship questions sometimes have problems in school. Many kids start to lose interest in academic subjects when their lives are filled with bullies or problems caused by circumstances beyond their control.

When I wrote my YA novel, If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor, I thought about all of the things we just discussed here. I started my novel on the first day of high school for a freshman girl who hated her own body and wanted to be like her enemy, Jennifer Taylor. When my main character, Carolyn Samuels, comes into school she is assaulted with the smell of the first day of school:

"The hallway has that first day of school smell: fresh paint and floor wax. Combined with the perfume and aftershave worn by everyone, the smell almost suffocates me."

When she walks into the gym she is assaulted with the smells of the gym:

"The smell of old sneakers and unwashed gym clothes mixes with shampoo."

Also the sense of sight and sound are important to convey to the reader. In this same paragraph:

"Becky and I can barely hear each other over the sound of the showers and the lockers slamming all around us."

As the sights, sounds, and smells of back to school wrap around you, the reader, I am hoping you will be transported into the world of high school whether you are still in a lower grade or you are years past your high school years. I know that as I was writing my novel my own experiences, though not at all like my character's experiences, helped me to put down what it felt like to be a freshman in high school. How do you deal with learning a new school and juggle being with your enemy who has bullied you all through middle school?

My YA novel, If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor, will be available on Friday, September 16th. If you are interested in learning more about it please go to the Muse Bookstore.


Roseanne Dowell said...

Ah yes, the sights and smells of school. I remember the smell of the pencil, the books, the smell of pine sol when you first enter the building after summer vacation, all fresh and clean. And the crisp mornings with the sun sparkling off the colorful leaves. I remember being the new girl, too, half scared out of my wits. I was shy and even though there was a little excitement about going to a new school mixed with the apprehension of not making friends. I remember girls like Jennifer Taylor - the pretty one, the most popular, their confidence. Of course all the boys fell over themselves trying to help her, make friends with her. Oh yeah. I wished many times I could be like Jennifer Taylor. Your book sounds great. I'm adding it to my to buy list, that grows longer every day.

Barbara Ehrentreu said...

Roseanne, you describe it so well! I have a feeling after reading so many writers' stories about high school that not being popular creates a desire to either write about it or prove you can do something to make you popular. I hope you enjoy the book when you do read it.:) Thank you for visiting and let me know what you think when you finish the book.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Roseanne, boy does this bring back memories. You made it feel like it was just yesterday. Thanks! Great post.

BarbaraB said...

Barbara, you brought back many memories, not just of my school days, but also of my teaching days. I'm just getting into your book, but I want to finish May I Have this Dance first so Roseanne can autograph it.

Barbara Ehrentreu said...

Joylene, thank you for visiting and commenting. Roseanne did add sensory words when she described her high school experiences as I mentioned in my post. "the smell of Pine Sol" gives you exactly how she felt when she got into school.

Barbara Ehrentreu said...

Barbara, did you have the same feelings when you stepped into your classroom after a whole summer? I always wanted to open the windows to air out the room. Thank you and of course, you should finish one book before starting the other.:) I can wait. I want to get your book too, but haven't had a chance to do anything this weekend. Glad I could bring those memories back for you.:)

Margaret Fieland said...

I attended Hunter College High School in New York City from seventh through twelfth grades. I caught pneumonia at the end of the summer, and thus started school a week late. What I most remember is walking into class, looking up at the rows of bleacher seats and feeling lost. A lot of my fellow classmates had attended the elementary school, and the rest had had a week to get acquainted. I still remember how the classroom looked, where I stood, and the sick drop of my stomach as I stared up at all those strange faces.

The smells? Nope, don't remember them.

Barbara Ehrentreu said...

Peggy, thanks for sharing your high school experience. I understand how you felt. When I entered my second school after coming from a brand new one it was very disturbing. Plus the first day I got there we had an orientation, but I wasn't allowed into school because I didn't have a dental note. I hated the Dean who enforced that rule. That night I refused to go back to that school, but my parents persuaded me after hours of arguments and threats. It wasn't fun. But there was nowhere else I could go so I had to go back.