Last March, on our last day before a well-deserved break from school, I decided to forego my AP Language and Composition lesson plans and show a short movie or movie clip that could prompt some discussion. My first choice was unavailable (the opening scene of Beasts of the Southern Wild), so I chose a short scene from American Beauty in which Ricky shares with Jane “the most beautiful thing” he’s ever filmed. (It’s a six-minute scene right at the center of the movie.) They watch a short film of a white plastic bag blown around in a kind of dance in front of a brick wall. Ricky explains that when he saw this he “realized that there was this entire life behind things … and that there was no reason to be afraid … ever.” It’s a touching scene in which two lost and troubled teenagers connect.
Afterward, we talked about the scene, and on a whim I asked everyone to think of their “most beautiful thing” so that we could then share them. I started it off by talking about the home-birth of my daughter, Emma, almost thirty years ago. Then the students took over. I was intrigued by the range of responses. Interestingly, family or friends played a central role in many of these beautiful things. Many spoke of favorite places that they’ve visited with their families. No one referred to social media. The majority of the students went to great lengths to describe their beautiful thing, recognizing that they were seeking to persuade their audience of the beauty of their experience and that descriptive details and evidence would play a key role in supporting that claim.
I tend to be a careful and conscientious lesson planner, some might say obsessive. A moment like this one reminds me that I need to give myself permission to let go sometimes, to wing it, to fail magnificently or feel some unexpected grace. In the end, I liked that this call to make a rather difficult aesthetic judgment led my students to reflect in a surprisingly deep way on their lives. The class became a sweet collage of beautiful moments.
David Duer lives in Iowa City and has taught English language arts at Cedar Rapids Washington High School for ten years.