The Truth about Grammar and Vanilla Extract

As soon as my students walked in, they knew something was up. The front of my classroom looked more like one of those cooking shows where everything was in place – mixing bowls, measuring cups, and stirring spoons. I even wore an apron.

My middle school students settled in more quickly than usual.

I began to sift the flour while I announced that it was “Copious Cookie Day.” (Copious was one of their new vocabulary words, and alliteration was the literary device of the week.)

I tried to eat a spoonful of flour, but it was so dry that it was impossible to swallow. Instead, little white puffs floated away from my mouth with every breath.

Ridiculous, I know. But my junior high students thought it was hilarious.

Taking the vanilla extract, I held out the little brown bottle for the students in the front row to catch a whiff. We agreed it smelled delicious. Then I poured some into a teaspoon and drank it. The expression on my face communicated the sickening taste.

With theatrical flare, I continued to sample each individual ingredient. Obviously, some ingredients – like sugar and butter – tasted fine by themselves. But other ingredients, when taken alone, were grotesque. I think the boys especially enjoyed watching their English teacher torture herself with disgusting flavors.

There were some funny reactions, both mine and theirs.

As I blended the ingredients together, I began to walk up and down each aisle, explaining how recipes require a combination of elements: sweet, sour, tart, and bitter. Of course, we love to eat the sweet stuff, but the other components are just as important. Without the yucky parts, the recipe wouldn’t work. Somehow it all comes together to make something yummy – like snickerdoodles.

For some, studying grammar can be a little like gulping a raw egg. (By fifth period, I couldn’t down another raw egg or else I feared that I might inadvertently give the kids a show I didn’t intend.)

Still, knowing the parts of speech, and how they work together, can enable us to access more difficult reading material and also help us compose our own works with greater ease and clarity. Just like the various ingredients for a scrumptious dessert, the different parts of speech come together to form something beautiful . . . like a well-told story.

Thereby, I introduced another rhetorical figure, analogy, and passed out cookies.

I have conducted this presentation on more than one occasion. When I taught at a public school, I hung up my apron here. But when I taught at a private Christian school, where the teaching of our faith is encouraged alongside the curriculum, I continued with the analogy.

Like the sweet ingredients, some circumstances in life are sweet too. But sometimes there are other circumstances in life that aren’t so great. They’re painful – some of them, immeasurably so. And Bible verses like I Thessalonians 5:18 can be hard to swallow.

“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Give thanks in all circumstances?

During the week of Thanksgiving, this verse gets quoted a lot. Sometimes when I hear it, though, I feel as if it’s being offered in the same tone of voice that tells me I should also eat my vegetables. I know veggies are good for me, but I don’t always enjoy eating them. I also know that I should “give thanks in all circumstances,” but this is sometimes easier said than done.

There is real suffering in the world. For many, the most difficult part of this week will not be about matching the napkin rings.

I have much to be thankful for. But I am also mindful of those who are facing severe circumstances, and I want to stand with you – if even from afar – in prayer, and close in spirit.

If life feels as suffocating as piles of dry flour . . .
If moments taste as vile as extract . . .

I pray that somehow, in some way, God will work all things together, combining the sour and bitter ingredients in life with milder and sweeter ones, to create something beautiful in the end.

* * * * *

Throughout the Thanksgiving holiday, we often hear the question: “What are you thankful for?”

I would like to add another question: “Who are you thankful for?”

Today, I am giving thanks for a God who exchanges beauty for ashes.

Who are you thankful for?

2 thoughts on “The Truth about Grammar and Vanilla Extract

  1. I am thankful for you!

    Denise, this post was wonderfully written—a well told story! I could picture you in your apron, wearing various expressions of disgust as your students learned a valuable lesson.

    You have a beautiful heart of Thanksgiving!

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