Category Archives: Life, the Universe, and Everything

I Never Thought I’d. . .

The winner of the “I Never Thought I’d. . .” contest in Real Simple magazine has been revealed, and lo! it is not I.  For those of my readers not familiar with this, writers were invited to submit an essay on the subject of a life change that they never thought would have happened.  The winner gets $3,000 (I could have used that), a trip to New York to have lunch with the editors (pass), and tickets to a Broadway play (myeh. . .).  Since I didn’t win, I feel free to point out that the name of the magazine, Real Simple, is grammatically incorrect.  It ought to be Really Simple, since the first word is an adverb that modifies the adjective that is the second word.  Of course, I insist on simplicity in language wherever it’s possible, so I’d ask the editors to call the magazine Simple.  But obviously, they don’t listen to me.

At any rate, for the benefit of my readers, here’s my essay.  Enjoy:

I Never Thought I’d. . . Teach English

Sitting in the back of the room in Expository Writing, I never imagined that one day I would teach the same subjects to students just like me. The class met on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so it was an hour and a half long, an hour and a half of listening to the one English teacher in the world who by his own admission did not want to be a poet. He read passages out of Thoreau and Annie Dillard that were filled with awe and precise description, then told us to write mechanical, five-paragraph essays. This was not the man that I wanted to be.

It wasn’t that this professor and his class were the deciding vote anyway. In my years of schooling, I had learned that the teaching of English was not a solid, manly enterprise. My English teachers in high school had all been women, except for one male flower child who was in an advanced state of wilt, and all they ever talked about were poems and feelings.

When they weren’t laboring over the niceties of commas and the finer points of fragments, that is. Oh, but there were a few other things that they taught me. I learned that Emily Dickinson was born in a room in Amherst, Massachusetts and never left it, Walt Whitman didn’t know how to count metrical feet, and Ian Fleming was not a writer worthy of my attention. A thesis statement must be the last sentence of the first paragraph, and it must be underlined. Language and literature is summed up in pairs of right/wrong answers—can/may, lay/lie, your/you’re, and so forth—except when we’re considering the fallacy of the false dilemma.

I admit that I wasn’t paying careful attention, though. Part of my mind was stuck on the usual teenage worries. Does that girl like me? Will my parents let me grow up? Is “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” the definitive song about education? Humming that song under my breath did get me through my senior year.

But that was only a part of what was occupying my thoughts. At that age, when I knew how everything worked but was in too much of a hurry to write down the explanation, I had my life planned out. I was going to be a physicist. I didn’t want to build a better bomb, although that fallback position was what I called job security. My goal was to invent warp drive. I was going to discover the Grand Unified Theory, collect my Nobel Prize, and work out the details of a starship’s engine long before my hairstyle had to change from Kirk’s to Picard’s.

Sadly, there was one small cloud on the horizon of my sunny plan: mathematics.

I had never been a brilliant student in that subject. Geometry and I got on as best friends ought to do, and I admired algebra. Long division, however, was an operation that I loathed. The reasoning behind the numbers made sense, and I particularly enjoyed it when I could see some bit of cleverness. What I didn’t like was interminable calculation. I was happy to do proofs all day long, but give me a pile of arithmetic, and I became rebellious.

I hung on until Differential Equations, the class after Calculus III. This was the summation of everything that I hated about mathematics. There were pages and pages of minute figuring, all with the purpose of finding the equation of the line through a set of data points. It was important—without this technique, there is no modern physics—but I just didn’t get it.

Now what was I to do? I could struggle on for years without ever gaining fluency. I had to accept that while I was in love with science, I didn’t speak her native language, so she just wanted to be friends.

I did like the humanities. Despite the best efforts of my English teachers, I enjoyed reading, so long as I chose what I read. History, that study of human conflict and achievement, fascinated me.

When I realized that the study of letters had something in common with geometry, I was hooked. I found, thanks to the prodding by my professors, that the text was something to be analyzed. It did not have to be only the subject of a game of Trivial Pursuit. How it made me feel was not nearly as important as what I could prove from the writing. Why does Hamlet hesitate? Why does Achilles allow Priam to recover the body of his son? These were questions that could be answered with evidence and reasoning.

So the humanities became my rebound relationship. I learned that grammar is not arbitrary; its rules made sense when I saw it being used by good writers, and those writers form a chain of influence that links generations of ideas together. Strangest of all, I saw that the best writing is beautiful.

I don’t know why I hadn’t understood this before. I had read Watership Down in sixth grade and contemplated its descriptive passages with astonishment. Shakespeare’s soliloquies wove complex thoughts into elegance. Could a relationship stand on beauty at the core?

Of course it could. The key to sustaining it was to be in love and share that emotion with others. After earning a Master’s degree in liberal arts, I found a job teaching English at a local community college. I tutored algebra students on the side. Call that a dalliance with an old love. As an adjunct instructor, I take what I can get. Still, living with English has been a rewarding relationship, if rocky at times. I eschew multiple choice or true/false testing, having promised myself that I would not repeat the errors of my teachers. (I’ve likely made a whole set of my own errors, but that’s inevitable.) My favorite moments are when I see a student learn how to join words together to create magnificence or discover the pleasure that is to be had in reading.

Teaching English has been a Bohemian marriage for me, and I have no regrets. Besides, as I work to get my science fiction writing published, I find that as long as the material is written in English, it’s fair game for me to write and talk about. My students are alarmed at times when I use a mathematical illustration to explain a point of literature, but perhaps that will awaken them to this revelation that I have that anything can be the subject of beautiful treatment.

The Semester Is Dead; Long Live the Semester!

Fall 2010 is now over.  I have submitted grades on-line, turned in a printout of the submission page, and turned in a photocopy of each page of my grade book to the Office of Departmental Excessively Repeated Redundancy.  As always, I’m feeling the combination of melancholy and relief that comes at the end of a semester.

The cause for relief is easy to understand.  There comes a point, especially with some students, when I feel that I’ve done all that I can do.  Grades these days are mostly a bureaucratic exercise that bear no reflection on the actual knowledge and skill of the student, especially since school administrators are unwilling to support strict professors, and the truth is that I’m not teaching marksmanship or brain surgery.  No one who needs killing will live and no one who ought to be saved will die (in the physical sense, at least) because of what my students fail to learn.

I wish that my classes would understand that what I am teaching isn’t meant to get them a job.  It’s meant to make them better citizens and better human beings.  Grades don’t measure that.  Many of my students learn early on that I’m not going to give them the three secret rules to becoming rich in any endeavor, and so they stop paying attention to where commas go and why something cannot be very unique.  To them, I give this curse:  May you get out of life exactly what you want from it.

But even with regard to my good students, I am relieved that the hours of work–the careful editing of grammar, usage, and content–are over.  I hope that they will carry on without my help, and I hope that they will seek out the knowledge and wisdom that we didn’t get to cover.

Therein lies some of the melancholy.  I explain to my classes that we’re taking the fountains-and-statues tour of whatever the subject happens to be.  Today we stop in this town, snap a few photographs, and move on to the next destination.  Next semester, I’m teaching Survey of World Literature I.  I’m expected to give a respectable overview of every worthy text that was written from the beginning of writing to 1650 C. E.

It is painful having to decide what to include and what to leave out.  Regardless of the subect, I get three months of three hours a week minus holidays to share as much as I can give and my students can absorb.  At times I feel guilty over what gets missed, but I’ve come to accept that I’m giving them something that many of them would never have seen otherwise.

Imagine a physician who knows that eating a good diet, engaging in moderate exercise, and taking an aspirin a day are all good for the heart.  But what if said medico has time only to recommend one of those to a patient?  There is benefit to be gained from any of the three.  I had a student in a World Lit. class who had read hardly anything before I got to him.  I assigned The Aeneid to the class, and for some reason, that work out of all the texts that we read turned him on to reading.  The lesson here is that we do what we can, and sometimes, that’s good enough.

The main cause of my blues at this time, though, is the fact that I’ve spent three intensive months with persons that I’m unlikely ever to see again.  Yes, in some cases, that’s a mercy, but the fellowship that forms over the course of a semester is something to be savored.  Once it’s gone, that particular fellowship will not return.  There will be others, and they in their own ways will be just as meaningful, but this semester is lost to time.

But this is what Achilles learns when Priam begs for the return of his son’s body:  The fleeting connections that we make with each other are what make our lives meaningful.  The gods are immortal and therefore have nothing to lose.  We, on the other hand, must squeeze what we can out of each moment.