I can't verify this claim, but in February I began teaching what I suspect is the largest single creative writing class in an Oregon high school. Right now the number stands at 39, which feels like some kind of novel educational record for Oregon. While it almost goes without saying that 39 high school students in any one class isn't really a good thing, I love thinking I hold the mythical title. At one point, the counseling office capped enrollment but students kept streaming into the room asking to join. How could I have possibly said No
when one teenager after another stood in front of me and said writing meant everything to them?
Creative writing saved my life in high school and now I teach creative writing. What an easy existential equation to figure out.
I do know one thing for sure. Thirty-nine students constitutes the largest class I've taught in any subject in my 17-year teaching career. Newport High School on the central Oregon coast enrolls approximately 450 students in grades 9-12 and has a staggering number of children who qualify for free and reduced lunch. At times it seems like my students need stories almost as much as they need food and I try to provide opportunities for them to dive deep or fly away with their imaginations and temporarily get the hell out of Newport.
I had 24 students in the class last year and emphasized creative nonfiction. We put out a magnificent 157-page literary review and wrote our asses off (I complete every assignment with them and always generate some fantastic material as a result). This year, fiction is the focus and three months into the semester I can happily report the writing blows me away and I've only read one story about vampires!
One of our most recent assignments was to write an Oregon tale. I find writing tales to be a very fun and liberating literary exercise, although I never expect to have any of them published. I also enjoy reading them and peruse Isak Dinesen's various collections of tales (Winter's Tales is my favorite) once every other year for the sheer pleasure of lifting off from Earth's modern angst and taking a fantastic journey through the mind of a master storyteller.
In Oregon, our undisputed master of the tale is Gina Ochsner, whose most recent book is a novel titled The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight, a tale set in post-Soviet Russia that enthralled me from its opening sentence.
Prior to this, Ochsner released two Oregon Book Award-winning short story collections, The Necessary Grace to Fall and People I Wanted to Be, and both were replete with modern tales (some ghost stories too!), many of them set in Oregon. If you haven't read tales in a long time, check these books out. They will fascinate you.
As for my own Oregon tale, read below what I came up for the class assignment:
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An Oregon Tale
He sat at the kitchen table with his mother. They drank instant coffee and outside snow fell on the flat Nebraska fields. School started in five minutes. He had a history paper on the Zimmerman Telegram due and wondered if it should have something to do with Bob Dylan.
His mom set her mug on the table. He did too.
"Chet, I've found a new nursing job. We're moving to Oregon. The coast, a little town called Newport. It rains all the time but I think you'll like it. You can learn to surf. There are big green trees everywhere and supposed to be lots of hippies, too. I bet everyone walks around playing guitar and picks up litter."
"Mom, another move? I've got four months to go in my senior year! Can't we at least wait until I graduate?"
"You barely go to class anyway. Nothing interests you at school. Neither one of us has any real friends here. We both need a change, a new start. This new job means more money and more responsibility."
A week later they had sold everything, driven west in a Saturn wagon, and Chet found himself walking through the halls of Newport High School. He headed to second period Honors English with Mr. Love. He had a backpack dangling off one shoulder and carried a black umbrella.
Chet knocked on the door and walked into the classroom. It was packed, maybe 40 students. They all looked like they belonged in indie rock bands or worked at a farmer's market. Three sat on a couch and a couple others reclined in bean bag chairs. One was practicing yoga. Record albums and maps of Oregon hung on the walls. Chet noticed spotlights, a guitar amp, and musical instruments stashed in shelves next to crayons, markers, and about a dozen craft glue guns.
Everyone was writing, even the yoga kid. When they saw Chet they all stopped in unison and locked eyes upon him, then the umbrella. He waited for what seemed like an hour until a figure stood up from the couch. He held a journal in his left hand and a pen in his right. He was unshaven, longhaired, and wore brown cords and a green wool sport coat full of holes. There was dog fur all over him.
"My name is Mr. Love." The figure shifted the pen to his left hand and reached out his right.
Chet shook his hand. "I'm a new student. Chet."
"Where'd you come from?
Laughter exploded from every nook and cranny of the room, the floor, the ceiling. It nearly knocked Chet off his feet.
"Nebraska!" Mr. Love roared. "Oh Chet, you have been luckily delivered from the golden-eared evil. Welcome to Oregon! Class, let's welcome Chet! He no longer has to stare at cornfields!"
The class gave a hearty applause and savage tribal yells. They insulted corn. A few students bowed and made strange deferential gestures with their hands. One girl got up and danced a jig seen at the Oregon Country Fair.
"So what did you think of our beaches?"
"I haven't been yet. I actually have never seen the ocean. We just got in yesterday and found our apartment."
"Whaaaaaaaaaat?" Mr. Love screamed. "You've never seen the ocean?" He spun around to face the class. "Did you hear this sacrilege, Oregonians? Chet has never seen the ocean?"
A male student bolted up from his desk, spilling his goblet of tea and the Lord of the Rings figurines he played with every day. He screamed: "This will not stand! To the beach! Take him now! Bring wood, oil, salmon, and rock!"
The students all jumped up from their desks and enveloped Chet. A girl snatched the umbrella from his hand and snapped it in two over her knee. Seconds later Chet felt himself gliding through the door, into the hall, into the parking lot, into the back seat of a generic American sedan streaked inside and outside with mold and decorated over every inch with stickers advertising every city, town, and kitsch tourist attraction in Oregon.
Rain started falling and some of the seniors began to dance, scream, and smear rain into their hair and faces. Mr. Love was somewhere; Chet could hear him commanding this senior to carpool with that senior and where they should rendezvous. It sounded like they were going into battle.
Chet was sandwiched between two girls and three more girls rode in the front seat. They all wore their hair in ponytails and smelled like salt, pine cones, and wood smoke. The sedan's engine chugged to life, some weird guitar music came on, and the driver eased the sedan onto the road. Suddenly, all the windows powered down, the rains splashed in, and all the girls started singing, something about how much they hated clearcuts and loved animals. One of them pulled out a Thermos and poured herself a mug of green tea. She offered Chet a sip but he declined.
As the sedan rumbled along, Chet turned around and saw seven vehicles, ten bicycles, and one runner in pursuit. The runner was wearing only a loin cloth. The procession passed the main entrance to the high school and the campus monitor stood on a bench pumping his right arm up and down. The principal was there too. He saluted.
"You have to put this blindfold on," a girl said as she handed Chet a tie-dyed bandanna. "Mr. Love insists."
He complied wordlessly.
Five minutes later the sedan stopped. "Wait here for a few minutes," said a girl. He was alone.
Chet heard something he'd never heard before and it sounded huge. He also smelled something new and it filled his nose and lungs.
"You can take the blindfold off now Chet," said Mr. Love. "Welcome to Nye Beach. C'mon, get out. Let's go. It's time you started living a real Oregon life."
Chet exited the sedan. It began to rain harder. The students had formed a gauntlet from the parking lot down to the beach. Chet entered and received pats on the back and cries of encouragement as he walked through. Smoked salmon was forced into his mouth. Halfway down the gauntlet Chet felt himself being picked up, turned on his back, hoisted to the sky. Four boys carried him to the beach and Chet heard a surf guitar riff reverberate through an amp.
The boys stood Chet up on the sand and removed his shoes. He saw seniors holding hands and dancing around a massive bonfire of pallets. They sang. One boy walked on coals. The rain began to fall even harder and the fire spit and hissed in response. Chet turned around and beheld the gray sky and the black water and the white waves and started walking toward them. They appeared as the most beautiful thing Chet had ever seen and there wasn't a trace of blue anywhere.