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Larry Efird: Figuring out figures of speech

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Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.

As an English teacher, teaching literary devices and figures of speech is a never-ending job. There are hundreds of them out there (no hyperbole intended), but there are at least a few which every student should know.

Who doesn’t remember from his or her school days trying to distinguish the difference between a simile and a metaphor? How about personification and symbolism? And when you had those figured out, you learned that there was not just one type of irony, but three! What’s a kid supposed to do with all this seemingly useless information?

Like most teachers, I try to explain that understanding figures of speech is essential for good communication.

If I say it’s “raining cats and dogs” they need to know I’m not speaking literally, but only figuratively. If someone is using sarcasm, they are essentially employing the use of verbal irony.

We use figures of speech numerous times each day without even thinking. For those engaged in the study of a foreign language, figures of speech can cause them to stumble if they don’t understand the nuance of the expression. If I say I would “kill for a hot Krispy Kreme doughnut,” I merely mean I want one really badly, but not enough to commit murder — I would hope.

One of the first lessons I had to learn as a new teacher was not to use sarcasm with my students as a defense mechanism or discipline strategy. I suppose all teachers are tempted to use sarcasm as a weapon on occasion, but it usually backfires whenever we succumb to the temptation. What people get away with saying on television doesn’t work in real life — especially in schools.

Maybe I have quickly thought up a perfect comeback for a “well-deserving” student before, but using sarcasm only dropped me to his or her level. It’s a trap some students are good at setting. And guess who gets in the most trouble?

I try to get my students to spot common literary devices in their daily readings, and when they can see them, that makes my English teacher heart proud.

Every year when I teach “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens, one of my favorite lines comes early in the novel, when Dickens describes an ancient London bank that is stuck in the past and has no intention of modernizing any time soon. He calls the bank and its frustrating procedures “the triumphant perfection of inconvenience.” How many times have I been somewhere when those words would express exactly how I felt too, but I just couldn’t come up with such an apt description?

Another line that oozes with verbal irony is from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” He describes one of the religious pilgrims who was making his way to the shrine of that most “holy blissful martyr”—Thomas Beckett—by saying of that traveler, “the nicer rules of conscience he ignored.” Almost all of my students know exactly what he means by that meticulously stated remark. It doesn’t take them very long to think of someone they know who fits that description.

Kids are naturally well-versed in sarcasm, so detecting it is fairly easy for most of them. They’re so good at it that they often don’t know they’re being sarcastic.

But they’re not alone. I had a student tell me once that she didn’t know if I was being serious or trying to be sarcastic when I told her the class missed her the day she had been absent.

There are times when being sarcastic and being serious are only divided by that common metaphor, “a fine line.” I love being creatively witty with my students at times to inject some humor into an otherwise dry lesson plan, but I have to be careful not to overstate something just for the sake of being pretentious — or harmfully sarcastic.

I can’t speak for all teachers, but I have a feeling we’ve all fallen into the sarcasm hole, and metaphorically speaking, twisted an ankle. We could have even broken one. But thanks to writers like Charles Dickens and Geoffrey Chaucer, verbal irony can be a literary art form, not just a way “to ignore the nicer rules of conscience.”

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.

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