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  • One Story, Two Voices:Bridging the Past and Present through Multiple Voices
  • Michael Steinberg

At a summer writers' conference some years back, a friend and I went to see the Stanley Kubrick movie Full Metal Jacket. In an early scene, a cruel D.I. mercilessly hazes a scared, unstable recruit who retaliates by killing the D.I. and then shooting himself. The scene reminded me of a less violent but disturbing confrontation I'd had with an anti-Semitic baseball coach when I was 15.

After the movie, I wrote down the details of the incident as best I could recall them. I wrote in the present tense, in the voice of the 15-year-old boy undergoing the experience. At the heart of the story was a scene in which the coach challenged me to throw the ball at my best friend's head. It was a sadistic and, to my mind, ridiculous request—designed to see if, in the coach's own words, I had "the guts to brush him back."

When I resisted, he called me a "chickenshit Jew" and a coward—right in front of the whole team. Enraged and humiliated, I told him to grab a bat and get in the batter's box. To make a long story short, he took the bait and I hit him in the head with the ball. After that, he never challenged me again. In some ways, it was what he wanted me to do. [End Page 123]

I reread the draft a few days later, and I could see that I'd captured the details of what the confrontation felt like. But something was missing. On paper, it was nothing more than a memory. In the larger scheme of things, what did it mean? To me? To anyone else? It had happened over 35 years ago. Why was I thinking about this incident at this point in my life?

To examine those questions, I needed to look at the confrontation from the point of view of who I was now in relation to who I was at 15. Were there any connections I could find in my present-day life? But even when I switched the narrative from present to past tense, the problem was far from solved. The predominant voice was still that of the adolescent "I" caught up in the immediate moment. When I showed it to a colleague, he said, "Heighten the tension between the adolescent and mature vision, and make it the heart of the piece." It ultimately proved to be good advice.

In the next several drafts, I framed the story of the boy's confrontation with the coach by beginning and ending the piece with a reflective, adult voice. Then I jumped back in time and shifted to the voice of the boy telling his story. It was the right strategy, but the adolescent voice was still so much richer and more authentic than the adult voice, which, in truth, read like the mechanical device it was—a way of getting the reader in and out of the memory recollection.

While I was wrestling with this problem, I noticed that in my freshman writing classes I was becoming more and more irritable with some of my students—to the point of engaging in petty, embarrassing squabbles with the most difficult ones. Why was I being so defensive and harsh with them? Long ago, I'd promised myself I'd never use fear and intimidation to motivate or punish my students. The problem weighed on my mind for weeks.

I was exercising on campus one day when I overheard two colleagues talking about the difference between being an encouraging teacher and a punitive coach. I was immediately reminded of the situation with my own students, as well as of the piece I was still struggling with. Those skirmishes and my dissatisfactions with teaching made me think that perhaps I was turning into a version of my old coach. I was horrified at the thought, yet the discovery helped me understand why that childhood incident was nagging at me now.

The writing breakthrough came shortly after I publicly humiliated a student for a...


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pp. 123-125
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