BeakSpeak Book

Chickens and Achebe

I moved to Seguin, Texas, in 1990, thrilled to find a place with the same, soft, sandy loam as Leesville’s where my horse could go “bare hoof.” Since Shelly didn’t want to stay with riding, I left Skipper D in Brazoria and purchased another, older mare named Cuban Gold. I would leave her on the Jones’ acreage in Leesville until I could get my 40 acres subdivided into fenced-off areas to protect the house, the workman’s quarters, the garage, and the 12-acre field of coastal hay in the back. I was needing to acquire about a dozen heifers (female bovines that haven’t calved) and a bull for an agricultural exemption to afford the place, so shoring up the cow pens on the right side of the barn and putting in fencing was paramount after the coop. The barn was situated about twenty-five yards behind the house, and, by now, the main roosting and nesting coop we had tied onto the left wall was finished.

Here’s Danette and I looking proud as peacocks that my soon-to-be biddies would have a new home. I would start them as chicks, of course, but they would soon grow to be beautiful birds.

Meanwhile, reality meant I needed to continue to keep perfecting my craft at Smithson Valley High School, a full hour’s drive from Seguin. I started out teaching senior English and, eventually, Senior Advanced Placement, having the students keep journals that we could work on every day transforming weak, vague words, phrases and clauses to active and specific ones. We wanted our adjectives to create pictures that were vivid and precise. For example, instead of saying a rock was heavy, it would be more precise and specific to describe it feeling laden with lead, or crushingly hefty. I had them use dialectical journals when we read novels to evoke that same kind of quality in their responses. They succeeded, with time and perseverance. I started thinking, if seniors can do this, freshmen could, too, if we just enriched their vocabulary, or gave them pages with the vocabulary and definitions on them from which to choose. It was just a matter of the right level of expectations, methods and inspiration.

Meet Deuter, Gen, and Karl, three strays Kathy Dierksen found in her van engine at school. Naturally, they convinced me I needed barn cats. Well, of course they didn’t stay in the barn. There were too many coons, coyotes, feral cats, and what not. Gen and Karl spent their days outside and their nights in the garage. Deuter came in to the unwelcoming hisses of my Manx cat, Putter.

Anyway, it didn’t take me long to become department chair, to get back into sponsoring UIL events, learning to in service colleagues on test-taking strategies, working both across, and vertically down, the curriculum, serving on the textbook committee, and extending the Advance Placement class to the freshmen level. I took that freshman class.

As a Department we focused on multi-cultural literature. One multi-cultural novel I taught the freshmen class was Nigerian Chinua Achebe’s 1958, Booker-Prize Award Winner, Things fall Apart. Achebe’s main characters were Okonkwo, the strong leader of the Igbo Tribe, and his weak son, Nwooye. The Tribe passed on their customs through “proverbs,” which means figurative language, like metaphors, that every Igbo understood. So, when Okonkwo says, for instance, that it’s “palm oil with which words are eaten,” he means you only eat palm oil at important or sacred events. Palm oil, palm wine and yams, then, are prevalent through out the novel.

So let’s transform some syntax (words as they are placed in sentences) related to Things Fall Apart, that I would have asked my freshmen to address.

Poorly worded sentence: Nwoye was told by Okonkwo to go to get food for the celebration of the Igbo people. This is a confusing, “tell” sentence. It doesn’t paint a picture for you. “Was told” and “to go to get” are vague and repetitive. Plus, “told” doesn’t carry the attitude Okonkwo feels about his son. As well, “food” is too general; we can’t see, taste, or smell what kind of food he’s getting. Too, the action verb celebrate is tied up in the noun “celebration”, so is rendered inactive. Finally, Okonkwo is the speaker, but he is made an object of the preposition “by”. He needs to be made the subject in this sentence, and he needs to say why they are having a celebration.


Better worded sentence: Okonkwo told Nwoye to go get food for the celebration of the Igbo people. This is clearer only because Okonkwo is placed at the front of the sentence and by is removed. All of the other problems remain.

Best worded sentence: Okonkwo ordered Nwoye to dig yams and tap palm oil to celebrate the Igbo ancestry. Now we have a “show” sentence. It has painted a picture for us with vivid detail, and the verb, “ordered” suggests Okonkwo considers his son weak enough to be ordered. All the vague verbs are gone and “celebrate” has been activated. We even now have something to celebrate: the Igbo ancestry. Even the repetitive word “people” has been dropped.

So, what would I expect of an elementary student? How about: Mama asked me to pick up the dresses on my bed before the party. Asked is a polite verb, dresses is more specific than clothes, and bed is more specific than room. Scaling it down, then, isn’t as difficult as the Okonkwo example I gave you from that freshman class. Younger people can do this if we stay with it. If we do that, there are promises of real achievement by the time they are in their teens.

While I was teaching this novel, happenstance brought the civil war in Rwanda to Texas. The New Braunfels’ Ambassador to Burundi, Africa, Bob Krueger, barely escaped ambush and fled with his Hutu cook and the cook’s boys to Botswana. From there, they took the first plane back to the States. It so happened, then, I had John, Vanalet and Mark Rusurieye come to visit my freshman class to tell us first-hand what the war was like over there. My class listened incredulously as the boys described the genocide with all its blood, gore, and abject horror. The Tutsi Tribe was trying to kill all the Hutu. It reawakened in my class an appreciation for what we had in this country and a profound respect for the good people who fight the brutality of African genocide. The dialectical journals I received from my students at the end of that novel were some of the richest responses I have ever read, including from seniors. They were freshmen, but their details and the descriptions of their feelings were as acute and heart-rending as journalists on a battlefield would write.

So, my work goes on: scaling down my rhetoric to evoke specific language, precise verbs and adjectives, cutting out clutter in sentences to make them more concise. I was on my way to eventually writing BeakSpeak. Over time, after I’d gotten my chickens, my golfing buddy, Bob Galloway, drilled the final screw into the last board of the coops’s extension. Now my chickens had a yard they could stretch their wings in while I was at school. Yea!

This is what the extension looked like some time later from the other side.


1 thought on “Chickens and Achebe”

  1. Peggy, this is fascinating, both your personal story and they way you got the kids to polish their work. I am sure their next teachers appreciated how they wrote!


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