One image. Any story. Words from The Big YA at Penn

Monday, February 19, 2018

All throughout this semester we have paused to write a five-sentence story for an image. Most of the time we've used my husband's illustrations to spark the tale, and last week was no different.

What was different is that Katie, a student of many years ago, spent the first half hour of class time with us. Katie, my Katie, who inspired a key character in my novel One Thing Stolen and who has gone on to UCLA, where, as an intern in the OBGYN program, she is already delivering babies.

My students—of now, of then—are hope-yielding. Here, below, are some of their stories. (Katie wrote, too, but her handwriting is truly doctor-worthy, and I feared mis-transcribing her story here.)

I think there is potential in blankness. Maybe I’ll draw something for you. Maybe I’ll write you a song. But frankly, I think I will send you a million blanks so you can imagine what each sheet is supposed to be. A flower, a poem, or perhaps an origami dinosaur.


This substitute teacher thinks she can keep us from having fun. She thinks she can seal the windows, close the blinds, wipe the board clean, and gaze down her nose at all of us. Especially me. But what he doesn’t know is that our real teacher is still here. If I listen, I can hear her questions, her corrections, and most of all, the words she sends constantly floating through our air for us to pluck out and use.


She was watching. I nibbled on the edge of my ballpoint pen and began to write. A story that never ends. It was daunting, I could say that much. A precocious child though I was, I couldn't see things through. I hadn't even been able to finish the 1000-word essay prompts shoved at me last Christmas Eve.


He sits in his room, poring over that horrible algebra textbook. Who knew seventh grade would be so hard? His mother stands in the doorway to his room, watching him frantically scribble, erase, scribble, erase, as if the pages wouldn't stay still. He pictures the pages, fluttering from his desk, some awful tornado of numbered sheets filled with equations amounting to an unintelligible other language, one no amount of tutoring could help him unlock.

Erin F.

"You have 45 minutes to complete your essays," my teacher announced. "Use only pen and pick one of the provided prompts."

My eyes wiggled back and forth furiously, trying to read the page that sat on my desk. I don't want to write any of this, I thought to myself.

Suddenly, the words jumbled on the white piece of paper, becoming incoherent alphabet soup.

"I just want to make my own decisions," I shouted, grasping my head between my hands, as it filled with extraordinary innovation and creativity: the two things my teacher would never see.


Two minutes before the bell rang, as Jared was shifting papers from side of his desk to the other—too loudly—a gust of wind burst through the half-open window. It blew the girls’ long hair from their faces, it riffed the proctor’s long, pleated skirt, and it sent every page of Jared’s completed AP Literature exam whipping across the rows of desks. As one, every head in the room turned toward him. How Jared had managed to mess this up, no one was sure. One thing was certain: their scores were cancelled.


Jonny scratches his head and squints his eyes
I watch him struggle but I am unable to help him
I start to approach him as the words escape his mind
Much like the pages that escape him
Watching the words fly away like birds uncaged


Letters swirl in my head, bouncing from one end of my skull to the other.  I try to make sense of them and put them on the page, but it isn’t working.  It rarely does.  “Two minutes left,” the teacher calls, her high heels clicking on the tiled floor as she paces around the room. “If you haven’t written your conclusion yet, do that now.”  I hear the clicking of the heels get louder as she approaches.  My heart pounds in my chest.  I only have one paragraph.  She looks at my page and clucks her tongue in disapproval.


This was the twenty-first letter the boy had written. They all started the same, with the opening words, “Dear Mom,” and they all ended up the same, unreceived, unopened, unread.  The boy did not know who his mother was, nor did he know where she was.  The envelopes were marked in large 7-year-old print: To Mom. The women at the orphanage didn’t have the heart to explain to the boy that letters without an address could not be delivered, but they also did not have the heart to throw away his carefully chosen words.

My body is grounded in class but my head is up in the clouds, brimming with the stories my mom reads to me every night. Vivid pages of Kings and dragons and knights, faraway lands that are much more interesting than the one I am currently stuck in: the land of math. My hand reaches out and up to catch them all, to hold them close, when I hear my name called.

"Oh! Derek, you know the answer?"

The stories are no help to me now, and they flutter away as my face flushes. I do not know the answer. 

Erin L.

My mother insists on leaving the windows open and uncovered all day, all year. It's beyond frustrating. With no blinds to protect me from the sun, I wake up at the crack of dawn. In the winter, I freeze and my skin dries and cracks. It's almost unlivable, but I learned long ago never to ask her why.

I tried my best. I really did. I poured my heart out onto those papers. Mrs. Drexler didn't care. She looked at my scattered papers with scorn. I knew she was happy to see me fail. — Isabella 


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