Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Best Oral Presentation EVER

Today one of my students walked into the classroom wearing a floor-length denim skirt that had so much fabric I was certain I could hide at least three of her classmates under it undetected. She was wearing a bulky sweater over her normal blouse. Her long hair was pinned up and away from her face.

"Hi, ya'll!" she chirped as she walked to the front of the classroom. "How we doin' today? Can I hear an A-men?!"

Everyone just stared.

"Well, I'm doin' just fine myself!" she said. "I'm here to welcome you to church orientation, and I've got some booklets here I'd like to pass around and share with ya'll."

I was sitting in the back row, and one of the girls sitting right next to me opened her eyes wide and slanted a Look my way. "Wowww," she murmured.

Wow indeed. This student was pulling off a dynamite southern accent, and her intonation was that of a whipped-up southern preacher. Her act was spot-on.

But it was more than an act. For an entire semester, this woman--a student in my Freaks, Geeks, and Outcasts literature class--has been telling us her family is absolutely nuts-o religious, and that she makes them very nervous because she's been taken with sin and no longer follows all the rules and regulations the rest of her family does.

How did this come up in class? Well, we read one of my favorite short stories, "Every Tongue Shall Confess" by ZZ Packer, which is a story that takes place in a tight-knit Pentecostal community. And after we read that story, this student came into class and said, "No joke--those characters are my family."

We returned to that same subject--a close-knit and very conservative religious community--later in the semester when we came to our only novel, The Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds. And when I announced that we were going to do oral reports to accompany our final papers--and that those oral reports had to do something interesting and engaging so the rest of the class didn't fall asleep in a puddle of drool--this student came right up to me and said, "Well, I know what I'm going to do." And when she told me, I was pretty excited.

She did not disappoint. She passed out booklets she'd made for all of us--booklets that were meant to illustrate the rules of our new church community--and told us to turn to page one so she could give us a proper introduction to the world of this southern church.

"Ya'll need to hear the word of God!" she said. "Ya'll need to keep on the path of righteousness! Can I get a Hallelujah?"

"Hallelujah!" the class chorused, wide-eyed.

"If you stray from God, ya'll'll end up raptured! Do ya'll know what will happen during the rapture?!"

We shook our heads.

She whipped out a slab of poster board that was decorated with a variety of horrifying pictures. There was a drawing of wailing people whose foreheads were burned and bloody and scarred with the number 666. There was another drawing of an orgy of bodies locked in strange angles. There was another picture of a lake of fire.

"This!" she said. "THIS is what'll happen to ya'll if you lock Jesus out of your heart! Now, do ya'll have any questions?"

I raised my hand.

"Oh, praise be!" she said. "What can I answer for you?"

"What happens if we do stay true to Jesus?" I asked.

"Oh, girl, I'm so glad you asked!" she sang out. "Ya'll, our reee-ward is great! Our gifts will be dee-vine! The streets are paved with gold in heaven, and all the buildings sparkle with jewels! It is the ulll-timate reward!"

Later, after she'd finished giving us her presentation, and after we had stared, slack-jawed and giggly, at her for fifteen whole minutes, she unbelted her long denim skirt--under which she was still wearing her jeans--and sang the first few notes of some burlesque tune as the pounds of fabric pooled at her feet. The class clapped furiously.

"So," I said. "Were you just channeling your mother?"

"Woo boy," she said. "Was I ever."

"That was frickin' awesome," one of her classmates said. "Seriously."

I couldn't have said it any better.

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