Playful writing 4: painting a word picture

This is the fourth blog post in the playful writing series stolen from inspired by Chuck Sandy’s iTDi blog post.

Today’s topic is: ‘Paint a word picture of an elementary school teacher you had. Use this person’s name. Start with “I remember” as in “I remember that Mr. Denz smelled like a campfire and I yet I never understood why until …”’

I can already see a few potential issues in introducing this to my classes who free-write. First of all, I’ll need to explain what is meant by a word-picture. They may not have the skills to do this. Secondly, they are all still very close to elementary school and some could actually use their current teachers. I wonder how the nearness of the memory will affect the writing. Then again, who knows (yet) whether I can do it either with elementary school being so far back in the past.

So here goes nothing: 10 minutes of writing about an elementary school teacher from a time in my memory that is mostly blank.

I remember Ms. Kranz was all small. Short with short black hair, short arms, short legs, short hands and short fingers. She taught us using little sayings like “when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.” I never forgot them.

She was adamant about us calling her Ms. Kranz. Not Mrs., not miss. It had to be miz. I never understood why. And then when we did call her, she invariably responded with PeeWee Herman’s classic line: “That’s my name. Don’t wear it out!”

We used to have nap time in class. She would have us put our heads down for ten minutes in the middle of the day. I never slept, but some students did. Back then I sucked my thumb. It was the only way I could relax. But it was hard to put my head down on the desk in a way that I could still suck my thumb.

Ms. Kranz used to give us manila paper to do our art projects. I used to think it was called ‘vanilla paper’ because I didn’t know the word Manila and I thought the color was supposed to be like vanilla ice cream (which I hated). I wondered if the paper got discolored the longer it was lying around. Maybe fresh vanilla paper was closer to white.

One day Ms. Kranz asked us to draw a nature picture. I don’t know why. I have never been a good artist (or particularly good at observation). I drew a line of blue for the sky and a line of green for the grass and I put in some flowers and trees. She looked at me with her face tight with frustration (I realize now that I’m a teacher that it must have been because I finished much too quickly and had done a shoddy job) and said ‘Anne, get up. Come here.’ She guided me to the window and waved her hand towards the landscape outside. ‘What do you see?’ I didn’t answer her. She was more specific: ‘Is there any space between the sky and the ground? Does the sky just stop?’ And that was the moment I realized that I had never cared to notice. Of course there wasn’t. I didn’t want to change my picture, though.

I also remember lining up on the day before Christmas vacation. She asked people who had already put up their Christmas trees to line up first. Then people who were going to put their trees up that weekend. Then people who put up their trees on Christmas eve. I was still sitting. My family had never had a Christmas tree. For my father, Christmas wasn’t about trees. It was about Jesus.

Ms. Kranz also arranged us in reading groups, pairing stronger readers with weaker ones. My partner was a girl named Carrie. I don’t know how much of this memory is real and how much is dream, but I remember sitting on a hill outside the school with Carrie and helping her read. The grass was green and the sky went all the way down to the fields. It was that kind of day.

We only did that once.

Ms. Kranz made a big impression on me in a lot of ways.


Well gosh. Ten minutes, 543 words, and I don’t know how much any of this counts as a word picture. A critical look back doesn’t show enough depth of description to let a stranger picture anything, I guess. I got caught up in the ‘I remember’ part – Ms. Kranz was my first grade teacher at St. Paul’s Lutheran school. I must remember when my students do this to be lenient on the topic because if I can’t stick to the topic, I can hardly expect them to either. I wonder if I should let them read a bit of mine as an example, but I hesitate now because I don’t want to prejudice their writing and if some of them can write on-topic I’d rather they do that.


If you’re still reading, thanks. Have a wonderful week.

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  • Hana Tichá  On November 17, 2014 at 5:31 pm

    Hi Anne,

    I don’t know whether your description counts as a word picture and I don’t even care if you stuck to the topic all the time. To me the text is perfectly coherent and cohesive. It is soulful. While reading I could picture Ms Kranz but more importantly, I think I caught a glimpse of your childhood. I never remember anything clearly from my own childhood – only scents, emotions, tastes… Even those seem very subjective and like you, I’m often unsure if they were real or just dreams. Isn’t it funny that we remember utterances people once said and they accompany us for the rest of our lives? Those seemingly unimportant things; I often wonder why we actually remember them at all.
    Anyway, hats off to your beautiful style of writing. It’s not easy at all to write 10 minutes non-stop without editing. Thanks for sharing your story.


    • livinglearning  On November 17, 2014 at 10:59 pm

      Dear Hana,
      Thank you so much for your comment and for reading all the way to the end of the story. I have a hard time calling up childhood memories, but some of them stay with me – particularly those of what people once said. It is a curious thing. The group of my students who did this today had a similar experience – they mostly wrote about teachers who made either a strong positive or negative impression on them. They remembered appearances, but also smells and emotions. And they remembered teachers who were exceptionally kind or teachers who hit them. Some of them did a much better job than I did at painting word pictures.

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