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Shall I Compare Thee? Finding Affection for the Metaphor

by Melissa Bryan, Guest Contributor

In the 20th Century, Olson argued against the weak simile. Pound called for a poetry that is "austere, direct, free from emotional slither." Tristan Tzara announced the death of logic, and by extension, the logic of comparisons. Contemporary poets raised on the poetics of these masters often discard simile, not even deigning to employ it in the aforementioned ironic contexts.

Metaphor doesn't fare much better. Nothing is like anything else; therefore nothing is anything else. -The Great Figure: On Figurative Language, D. A. Powell

Metaphors Carry

Communication is a complicated venture. It is a more untrackable transaction than the flow of money across seas. We, in our own desperate attempts to be understood, choose words that inadequately express our perceptions. It is like we press the cancel transfer button on our own attempt to move currency. The gifted sum of our thoughts sent out to others to be regarded and dealt with rarely pays down debt or returns dividends. Sometimes we come up short, sometimes we overpay, and sometimes we ignore the effort altogether. This is why I never understand eschewing liminal forms of communications. It’s like an automated transaction; we don’t think about them too much, but they are accruing, so why not value them? Surely any step toward the gift of communication is worth attending to as educators.

In preparing to teach a graduate course on Assessment in ESL, I have been reading - and largely agreeing with - the concepts and anecdotes, theories and student samples provided by the authors of Assessment and ESL. And while context matters here, one interpretation of a student sample left me bereft. Frustrated even.

After a quick discussion of a Bradbury story, “All Summer In A Day,” the authors, Barbara Law and Mary Eckes, contend that one student who wrote in response to the story, “did not even address the issue. He was completely off topic” (Law and Eckes, 2007, p. 153). The assignment, according to the authors, was to write a letter as the main character, Margot, to the children who locked her in the closet on the one day of the year - in this super-sci-fi story - on Venus in which the sun comes out and the rain briefly stops. Maybe a trite summation, but bearing that detail in mind, the student who, “did not even address the issue” wrote: “If there was a dog locked insid the car. I would help [him] out and take [him] home. I also would freedom ….i would take cer of the dog.” ESL language acquisition errors and lack of knowledge of the letter genre aside, I really wondered if this is an example of a kid who “was completely off topic.”

I kept thinking: wasn’t the task to impersonate Margot? Wasn’t Margot the child in the Bradbury story who was locked up in a place and wanted out? Wasn’t the objective to write a letter to the perpetrators of Margot’s crime? Yes, yes to all questions, in fact. And, the student’s parallel discussion of Margot via the trapped dog image seemed to indicate that he was, metaphorically, on topic.

As teachers of language and literacy, we certainly want to be sure that we are assessing form, style, syntax, and more, but - and this is especially true (and something Law and Eckes would agree with) with multilingual learners - we have to be sure we are measuring what we are assessing. In this child’s case, the teacher was assessing story comprehension - not spelling, not syntax, and not letter form. The metaphor used by the student adequately carried his own understanding of the story to the teacher, and yet the interpretation of that comprehension was deemed “wrong.” Inarguably, though, Luis, the author of the dog letter, seems to have understood something fundamental about the story. No one wants to be trapped.