Just in case you are not an English teacher let me clear something up – a simile is a figurative comparison between two entities that uses the words ‘like’ or ‘as’ in order to draw the parallel. Our everyday speech is littered with clichéd, go-to similes used as prosaic descriptive expansions: as good as gold, as fast as lightning, like a bat out of hell etc. Pop and rock music are peppered with them and they form an essential part of the song-writing process; from like a virgin, to like a night in a forest, a memorable simile can be the making or breaking of a song. However, rock and pop pale in comparison next to rap, one of the most illustrious purveyors of similes in the modern world, ranging from the sublime ‘I got rhymes embedded in my mind like an embryo’ to the ridiculous ‘I love you like a fat kid loves cake’. And of course, stories, plays and poems contain them by the hundreds.
It is with this in mind that English teachers spend vast swathes of time trying to help students develop their simile writing, attempting to guide them away from clichés in order to aid them in the crafting of more vivid and interesting prose. At least that is the theory. Because trying to teach someone to be creative and original sometimes feels about as easy and rewarding as undertaking an ironman competition whilst suffering from polio and having boulders tied to your legs.
Like asking someone to express their emotions through the medium of dance, you can never be sure about the inventive outpourings that will follow a lesson on similes.
By way of example, and as an appetiser for this week’s fail, here is a list of my favourite similes produced by my classes from over the years:
- He was as fast as a lion with wheels.
- Her heart was beating like one of those weird drums that they get in poor places like Africa or somewhere like that.
- The cake was as delicious as a camel.
- His eyes were brown like the mud in her Grandma’s garden. They were beautiful.
- She was as scared as a woman who had no skin.
- He was so happy it was like he had just eaten a McDonalds with Mr. Happy.
- The dog was as small as a house that had been shrunk down to the size of a cat.
- She entered the cave for the first time. It was as if she’d never been there before.
- His face looked as old as my mum’s foot.
- They were like Romeo and Juliet except that they weren’t dead and they didn’t talk stupid Shakespeare words.
I once taught a module that involved Year 8 students writing their own illustrated children’s stories which they subsequently read to primary school children. One of the lessons in this module was about incorporating original, audience-appropriate similes. The kind of memorable sentences that put Spot the Dog and The Gruffalo on the map and kept them there for successive generations.
We ran through our definitions of a simile, had a look at some extracts from Roald Dahl and The Very Hungry Caterpillar in order to think about the kind of similes that suited the target audience, and all seemed to be well. After this, the class were tasked with writing a list of quality similes to describe the key characters, objects, events or feelings in the stories that they had started drafting.
I circulated around the class and, on the whole, most of them had put together some thoughtful and evocative similes. The odd cliché had popped up, but with a little redirection and questioning the insipid had been turned to inventive and the stories were back on track. Sadly, this was not true for everyone. One young lad was having a bit of a hard time. In fact, by the look on his face, it seemed more like he was undertaking the struggle of his life. It was not long before the struggle of his life had mutated into the struggle for my sanity.
‘What are you stuck on Derek?’ I asked him.
‘I want to use a simile to describe how big the giant is.’ he replied.
‘OK. Well, why don’t you try and think of something that is even bigger than the giant and then exaggerate it a little bit by using a big number or a superlative – remember the words that end with est or have most written before them.’
‘What do you mean?’ He said, a look of exponentially increasing bewilderment spreading across his face.
‘How about something along the lines of – the giant was as big as a the highest mountain peaks, or the giant was as big as a thousand normal men?’
‘Yeah. Yeah. That’s good. I’ll use one of them.’
‘No. You can’t use those – I was just giving you some examples. Just do what I said and you’ll be fine. Think of something big and then compare it to the giant, and remember you can crank it up by using a number or a superlative. Do you have something in mind?’
‘What is it then?’
‘My dad. The giant was as big as my dad.’
‘Oh. Well, there’s probably a couple of problems with using that simile. Can you think of what they might be?’
‘Ok – is your dad as big as a giant?’
‘He is pretty tall.’
‘But is he as big as the giant in your story?’
‘So if you used that simile then you would be suggesting the giant is smaller than he actually is – right?’
‘I don’t know. My dad is really tall. He’s almost as tall as Mr. Walls.’
‘As tall as a giant?’
‘Ok – so we can’t use it for that reason, but there is another reason. Think about what it might be. Think about who you’re writing for.’
‘Do many people know who your dad is? Would they know who he is and understand how tall he is?’
‘My family would.’
‘Are you writing the book for your family?’
‘So how would an audience who don’t know your dad, know how tall he is?’
‘That’s right. So are we agreed that the dad simile can’t go in?”
‘And you understand why?’
‘Good – then I’m going to look at some of the other work and I’m going to come back to you in five minutes to see your new simile. Remember – it needs to be something bigger than your dad and also something that other people would be able to understand.’
True to my word, I circulated around the classroom, stopping to make the odd correction or to dish out the occasional house point for any particularly impressive efforts. I could only guess and wonder at what kind of intellectual, creative machinations were taking place in Derek’s mind whilst I was away, what heaving cog turning was taking place in the neglected factory of ideas that was his mind. Cautiously optimistic, yet mildly afraid, I returned to him.
He looked up with an eager smile from his work.
I read it.
I wondered what the cracking, splintering sound of disintegration was that was piercing my inner ear, and then I realised that it was the sound of my soul and patience being simultaneously destroyed by a pin prick to their most vulnerable points.
The new simile read: ‘The giant was as big as my uncle’.
Stranded on a piece of driftwood between the oceans of struggling to keep my cool, and bursting out laughing, I tried to think of a way to make it clear to Derek that there were in fact bigger things in the universe than his father and his uncle. A very familiar, very groundhoggy feeling line of enquiry began.
‘Is your uncle as big as a giant?’
‘No. But he’s bigger than my dad.’
‘But he’s not bigger than a giant?’
‘Does everybody know who your uncle is?’
‘The people in my family do. And more people know my uncle than my dad because my uncle works in a hospital.’
‘But would the people who are going to read your book know how big your uncle is?’
‘So why did you use that simile after the conversation we had before?’
‘I couldn’t think of anything else.’
‘You couldn’t think of anything, not one single thing in the entire world, that is bigger than your uncle?’
‘Is there anything in this classroom that is bigger than your uncle?’
‘Yes. The cupboard…and the door…and the whiteboard…and the displays…and your table…’
‘And what about if you look out of the window?’
‘Yeah. The floodlights…the lamppost…the wall…’
‘So could you maybe use something like that in your simile?’
‘Yeah, yeah, I think maybe I could.’
I took in a deep breath, thought about the financial repercussions of retirement at twenty-seven, briefly imagined aggressively shaking Derek’s head until an actual thought appeared in it through some miracle of kinetics, and wondered what the professional repercussions of screaming as loud as I could might be. But I composed myself. And I repeated my mantra to him.
‘Good – then I’m going to look at some of the other work and I’m going to come back to you in a few minutes to see your final simile, the best one that you can come up with.’
I walked away, feeling the kind of defeat and resignation that innocent men sentenced to death row might feel, the concept of hope dissipating like a belch expelled from the pit of a repugnant stomach. I looked at the other students’ work, but I couldn’t take my mind off of what Derek was going to produce. I reached the 22nd student, and then the 23rd, the countdown to my simile based descriptive destiny was only one more student away. 24th.
Now for Derek.
He looked up from his exercise book with an enigmatic grin. It was a smile mired halfway between joy and the kind of smirk the devil would wear after kicking you in the crotch. Expecting to look over his shoulder and see a simile saying ‘The giant was as big as my third cousin.’ I proceeded.
This is what it said:
‘The giant was as big as a cupboard on top of a whiteboard on top of a door on top of a board on top of a floodlight on top of a wall on top of a lamppost. It was easily bigger than my dad and my uncle and I know that you don’t know them but trust me they are big.’
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, to congratulate him or kill him, to hug him or smother him. But then I looked up at the learning objectives on the board: ‘To examine the use of similes in children’s books and to be able to use original similes in our writing.’ An inner peace momentarily fell upon me like a blanket of gentle snowflakes.
‘Derek.’ I said ‘I don’t think I have ever read a more original, or unusual simile in my entire teaching career. And in its weird and wonderful way, your simile is exactly the kind that children would understand and also find funny as well – so you have just hit both of the learning objectives right on the head.’
His eyes lit up and a grin that could have made a Cheshire cat look like a manic depressive listening to The Smiths in a mouldy basement stretched across his face. But the happiness was only temporary; the rainbows were about to fall from the sky and the unicorns keel over and die in the transitory educational Utopia that we had fleetingly inhabited. A pensive crease spread like a fault line across his forehead as he furrowed his brow.
‘But it wasn’t meant to be funny sir.’