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In 1971, University of Oklahoma professor Dr. George Henderson was in the process of writing a book. Titled America’s Other Children: Public Schools Outside Suburbia, Henderson’s work sought to explore the educational plight of poor and minority children in the rural US. One day, a letter appeared on his desk. It had been mailed from West Virginia and contained a 1900 word essay titled “What is Poverty”. The only identifying information came from the signature on the essay: Jo Goodwin Parker.
Henderson included the essay in his book. I read it for the first time 35 years later.
It brought me to my knees.
Poverty is getting up every morning from a dirt- and illness-stained mattress. The sheets have long since been used for diapers. Poverty is living in a smell that never leaves. This is a smell of urine, sour milk, and spoiling food sometimes joined with the strong smell of long-cooked onions. Onions are cheap. If you have smelled this smell, you did not know how it came. It is the smell of the outdoor privy. It is the smell of young children who cannot walk the long dark way in the night. It is the smell of the mattresses where years of “accidents” have happened. It is the smell of the milk which has gone sour because the refrigerator long has not worked, and it costs money to get it fixed. It is the smell of rotting garbage. I could bury it, but where is the shovel? Shovels cost money.
Parker’s raw, unflinching depiction of life grabs the reader by the throat and doesn’t let go.
Her piece is an ideal example of a definition essay: a detailed discussion of a topic’s meaning. She defines poverty through her own experience, letting the reader explore the topic from all sides.
A definition essay can be as simple or complex as the writer desires. For a simple definition piece, the author includes specific facts about the topic and includes any relevant details. A more complex definition essay includes analysis of the topic, or comparison of the subject to another idea.
Parker’s essay is complex. Her words are relentless in their pursuit of the reader’s understanding:
Poverty is staying up all night on cold nights to watch the fire knowing one spark on the newspaper covering the walls means your sleeping child dies in flames. In summer poverty is watching gnats and flies devour your baby’s tears when he cries. The screens are torn and you pay so little rent you know they will never be fixed. Poverty means insects in your food, in your nose, in your eyes, and crawling over you when you sleep. Poverty is hoping it never rains because diapers won’t dry when it rains and soon you are using newspapers. Poverty is seeing your children forever with runny noses. Paper handkerchiefs cost money and all your rags you need for other things. Even more costly are antihistamines. Poverty is cooking without food and cleaning without soap.
If you read “What is Poverty” in its entirety, you will notice Parker’s reliance on personal experiences. This is an effective way in which to reach her reader, as the gritty details engender a sense of empathy in those who encounter them.
Definition essays need not rely on personal experience to be effective, though. Writers can use other techniques, including
- sharing other people’s opinions the topic
- making comparisons to similar ideas
- breaking down the parts of a whole
- establishing what the word or idea is not
Similarly, writers can include counter arguments that might contradict a specific claim. When the claim is refuted, the author can further prove the authenticity of her definition.
Parker uses this technique in “What is Poverty”:
But you say to me, there are schools. Yes, there are schools. My children have no extra books, no magazines, no extra pencils, or crayons, or paper and most important of all, they do not have health. They have worms, they have infections, they have pink-eye all summer. They do not sleep well on the floor, or with me in my one bed. They do not suffer from hunger, my seventy-eight dollars keeps us alive, but they do suffer from malnutrition. Oh yes, I do remember what I was taught about health in school. It doesn’t do much good.
Through her refutation, Parker makes clear the impact of poverty on a family: even if Parker could send her children to school, they would not be well enough to attend.
Parker fuses several different essay types together in this definition piece, which is why I saved it for the end of the series. She is telling her story (narration) through vivid details (description). She is sharing the cause (poverty) and its effect (increasing poverty). Finally, she provides a comparison of her situation (abject poverty) to the attitudes of those who have not lived it (why can’t you just pull yourself out?).
Parker’s essay accomplishes what a five paragraph cannot. It touches a reader’s soul – and that’s what makes a strong piece of writing.
Read more about the limitations of the five paragraph essay here. For additional alternatives, check out the rest of the days in this series:
Monday: The Descriptive Essay
Tuesday: The Narrative Essay
Wednesday: The Comparison Essay
Thursday: The Cause and Effect Essay
Friday: The Definition Essay
This post is part of the iHomeschool Network 5 Day Hopscotch
Information in this post was adapted from Fusion: Integrated Reading and Writing Book 2 (Kemper, Meyer, Van Rys, Sebranek; Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2013).