Making Out: Plotting

About Jess

Making Out is a series centered on how issues observed in the high school classroom by writer and teacher, Jess Burnquist, translate to daily life in the glare of parenthood and the shadows of nostalgia.

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In the middle of class, Logan proclaims with utter confidence that he intends to become a pirate. This announcement is unprompted. Students are busy working on their senior portfolios. They have found their rhythm as a class. Seating charts aren’t necessary. As they work on charting their high school experiences for their portfolios, they are generous with materials and memories. They often finish each other’s sentences during our writing workshops as well. The class looks up from their respective projects and at Logan. We are waiting for an explanation about his declaration to be become a pirate. He offers none and returns to his work. So we do too.

During our next workshop, Logan comforts Matthew who has more weaknesses than strengths in his story pointed out to him. He has turned in another war story. The action scenes are palpable but no one has any idea why the two unnamed sides are at war. All year long, I’ve been pushing Matthew to cite more detail and to take the time to show, not just tell, his stories.

Matthew has broken his pencil in frustration with the onslaught of questions lobbed at him about his lack of plot development. His reaction seems slightly disproportionate to the situation, but it never feels good to hear that you didn’t accomplish your goals. It never feels good to hear that others don’t appreciate your work as much as you thought they would. I am thinking about how to encourage Matthew without placating him. I learned this week that he has enlisted in the army. I’m about to speak when Logan says, “We’re just the vessel, Matt—when the work is ready you’ll channel it.” I am at once deeply annoyed.

I ask Logan if his vessel theory omits taking responsibility for poor choices in writing or otherwise. He firmly replies, “Nope.” I strongly disagree. Do I let this pass? Do I unfold an argument against his philosophy? If I do, I will have drawn a distinct boundary between young and old. Teacher and student. I’m often content to draw those lines but today this feels different. Matthew has gotten up to throw away his pencil bits. His fists are no longer clenched. I decide to say nothing.

Anna drops her pink gel pen near my foot. As I pick it up for her, I let her know that I used to love these types of pens. I don’t mention that the journal I received for my 18th birthday is covered in pink, green, and purple gel ink. I recently rediscovered that journal. My friend, Melissa, gave it to me at school on my birthday with an inscription about writing my life beginning then and there. It is the only journal I have successfully filled from cover to cover.

I think I had so much to write in my journal because I was finally a quotient in my life’s equation. As an 18 year old, I felt my decision-making power. Daily, I tried on my autonomy. Sometimes this meant doing my own laundry or making dinner for my family. Mostly, it meant writing about my envisioned self-to-be. One of the longest entries in my 18th birthday journal begins with the proclamation that my first love would be lasting no matter what and ends with my desire to star in a soap opera. Another entry describes my worship of Natalie Merchant and my newly determined plan to move to Oregon to become a folk singer. First I would need to learn how to play guitar—no biggie.

I notice how Logan’s hair touches his shoulders. It is a light brown mass of curls and has a will of its own. I realize that I am wound as tightly as one of his curls. “Can you tell me what you meant—(the class immediately becomes more still—some of the students surely saw me staring into the back of Logan’s head while fixing my thoughts)—when you said that you intend to become a pirate?”

Logan’s face lights up. “Oh, I’m going to have some amazing adventures.” He is absolutely in tune with himself. My approval or disapproval can’t touch him. This fact makes me so happy.

“You are,” I say to Logan while making eye contact with every student that I can. “You’re going to have amazing adventures.”

He smiles and looks at his classmates who return his grin because they can’t help themselves. Because they are—all of them, 18 years old. Their lives are rapidly conjugating. I remember how home felt like the past tense at that age. The way school or time with friends felt most immediate. How the future felt like a streak of sunlight one minute, and an oppressive weight the next. Matthew is at war with all of his tenses. I think he struggles to bring more detail to his work because he is smack in the beginning of his own plot.

Logan gently places a pencil on Matthew’s desk, then he runs his fingers through his hair and it splays in every direction as if being lifted by a breeze. The students are ready to navigate their lives even if they don’t quite know so. Our room sails toward the bell, toward varied and bright horizons.

* You may find archived installments of Making Out, and other work by Jess, at