You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘college’ category.

A reader and a longtime friend (and also a colleague) of mine, LB, commented on yesterday’s post:

I am sure you cringe every time I write. I was never formally trained in college-level English …I break many rules and don’t even know it….I just write so it sounds good to me.

Thinking about you editing my writing sends chills down my spine!

LB is not alone: thinking about anyone editing my writing sends chills down my spine, too! Asking someone to be your second set of eyes is not easy; it is an act of faith and trust. We make ourselves vulnerable when we do that.

I truly believe that it is not ever very probable that anyone—myself included—will write a perfect draft of anything the first time. Is it possible? Sure. Likely? No. There is always something to fix, hone, improve, reword. The craft of writing never ends.

And just when we think we have it, there are new ways to push ourselves, new writing games we can play. A favorite teacher of mine in high school, Mrs. A, gave us a list of words we were not to use in some of our compositions. This list included common verbs such as “is” and “was” and “were”….plus several “helping words” like “there” and so forth. At first it took hours and hours to compose an essay around these rules. How do you write without the “to be” verbs?? Some students grumbled. Yet it remained our challenge, and we had to blossom creatively. I could feel myself stretching, and I loved that feeling as a student. Mrs. A will always be one of the truly great teachers in my life.

Our age of technology and quick written communication—blogs, e-mails, Facebook comments, text messages—seems to coincide with favoring efficiency and developing a more colloquial language. We do not read over our Facebook comments a dozen times before we post them, and we do not use our finest eye on our text messages. If we put these forms of writing through a rigorous and time-consuming editing/proofreading process every time we set out to communicate in this age, we might as well get out the ol’ fountain pen and stationery and make a trip to the post office. Sure, I am an advocate for writing as cleanly as possible so that you will be understood, but we must also understand that most blogs, for example, are first drafts, perhaps revised as we go.

That’s what editors are for: we can be the second eyes that take the piece through a clean-up time.

It is funny: ever since I declared English as my major at Stanford, and especially since I became an English teacher, many people—even my family! especially my family!—imagine that I am in “English teacher edit mode” all the time. I wish I could explain how much that is not the case. I majored in English because I love to read—to read others’ thoughts and to interface with those thoughts, to analyze and to learn from those thoughts, to have conversations across centuries. So most of the time, I read to savor and enjoy, to relax, to ponder. I read blogs and Facebook comments for these reasons…and also because I am just a plain old busybody. It takes an extra effort in my mind to switch into “edit mode.” Most of the time, I don’t push that switch because when we start pulling apart writing, we are looking at it in a mechanical way. Good writing often needs to be enjoyed for enjoyment’s sake.

I like what LB says about writing “so it sounds good to [her].” YES! An editor is no editor (and a teacher no teacher) if, at the end of instruction, the writer has lost her voice. And LB is right even further: we must begin writing by listening to the poetry and rhythms in our inner ear. Our own personal cadence. Grammar concerns arrive on the scene when a writer realizes that adhering to certain rules makes it more likely that readers will better understand her.

So no, I don’t cringe. Not unless I am asked to. 😉 The times I am most aware of cringing with respect to Facebook or blogs, for example, is when a poster uses words to spread negativity or discordance. Words are powerful, and my emotional responses to them tend to be permanent. Words should be used for the Good. I am a big believer in that.

And I am willing to receive the feedback in return. Another friend and reader of mine, Miss M, mentioned the other day that perhaps joy should not be “gathered” but rather something one “feels.” I have been pondering the difference in those verbs for days…and I thank her for drawing my attention to the nuance of it. Not only does it mean we are communicating in a purposeful way, but also it means that she is letting my writing take both of us to new places in our philosophical outlook. Isn’t that what writing is for?

Finally, one of the greatest challenges of my life (as a person who is often concerned about earning respect from my colleagues and fearing my weaknesses) also turned out to be one of the biggest blessings. Still a young teacher, I was surprised when a colleague of mine, SH, (now a dear dear friend) asked me to team-teach with her a couple sections of 9th graders in classes that would combine GATE clusters with the special ed clusters and still meet the old rule of 20:1 students with a 9th grade teacher. Those clusters never would have intersected otherwise in 9th grade English at the time. We had a total vision for the double class, and the school gave us a double room and an extra adult. We were able to do some mind-blowing, amazing things together with our students. It was a time of great learning for me, for all of us.

That first year, I had to learn to trust the feeling of my colleagues watching me hone my pedagogy, watching me in both glorious moments and red-faced moments. I had several single classes of my own, too, and I know well how much revision goes on in a single lesson plan from period to period. Imagine revising lesson plans and teaching strategies with another teacher, being honest about what worked and didn’t, where I did well and where I didn’t. It was the same for SH. We could see and hear everything about each other as professionals. We even got to the point where we could revise together by just a glance or few words in the middle of a period, in a split second. We got to know each others’ teaching rhythms. We helped each other reflect. There was no room for anything but total trust.

That experience, combined with how I tend to think about life generally, opened me to whole new ways of sharing and gathering knowledge, on reflecting with someone else about what goes well and what doesn’t. There is not a place for critique (good or bad) of others without a supportive, open-hearted attitude. We can’t go into it feeling that knowledge is a zero-sum game, or that it is anything less than a true sharing without judgment. If two people are really communicating, the learning is always bi-directional.

Joy in the sharing…

A good friend of mine (and my former 10th grade English teacher) Donna Dutton, another lovely spirit full of light, posed an thoughtful question to me in an e-mail this morning: What do I think of the revisions to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

To catch up, an Alabama publisher, NewSouth Books, is going to publish a new version of Huck Finn (as we call it in English-teacher shorthand) with all instances of the n-word replaced. NPR reports that there are other words that will be changed, as well. For example, “half-breed” will be revised to read “half-blood” and so on.

It is fair to say that, as I have grown older, my views with respect to censorship have grown more complex. As a young student, a young scholar of English at a liberal arts university, and a new first-year teacher I was loud with my trumpet that no literature or art should be off limits, censored, or banned. Yet with experience and motherhood has come the understanding that not all “art” has inherent value, simply because it was produced. There are a great many films, for example, that I would never allow to come into our home. There are several I have turned off mid-watch (even before children) because the language offends me. Why should my criteria be different with written material?

Few would dispute that Twain is one of the greatest American novelists and artists of his age, or of any age. I do think that both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer constitute valuable, worthwhile, thought-provoking artistry. Even more to my personal liking is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which I wrote about on the day last year of Salinger’s passing. Catcher is filled with cursing, and yet I do believe they have a purpose. I believe that Twain’s use of extremely culturally charged words also had a purpose—a purpose that is still relevant today.

I weigh this idea, though, with how I feel about more and more expletives being permitted on TV. It has become so rampant and permissive that watching prime time TV with Katie present (even recorded, since she goes to bed near 8:00 PM) is out of the question. Bill and I have a personal philosophy that cursing or, obviously, using hurtful names to disparage others is never okay. We do not teach our children those words, and if they ever hear them elsewhere and start using them, they will be corrected. Yes, intellectually we understand that words are just words—human beings give them arbitrary values and emotional tones. We have both read Stephen Pinker’s work on the subject. Intellectualism, however, is only one facet of our experience as human beings. Whether we like it or not, the words we choose to use do define us. For better or worse, I always wince when I hear someone use a curse word (just as I cringe when one comes into my head in frustration), and I always wonder why that person has chosen not to express himself or herself in a more positive and polite way. Often, I can’t help being offended by those words, depending a little on context. That’s just…me. For better or worse. Perhaps I am a little too subject to my upbringing and cannot look enough outside my own box, it may be argued, but I was raised to use more polite word choice. It’s that Mennonite blood in me, I think.

For me the words I use or don’t use are a way to honor my family, my husband and children now, and my parents and extended family, my elders. We would never dream about using such words in front of my Nana or my grandfathers, so why should I use them any other time?

I step away from myself, though, and I realize that sometimes, the artful use of curse words can be amusing. Satire, farce, social commentary: wielded with skill, even the most powerfully negative words in our culture can be illuminating. I think there must be some part of me that distinguishes between using a curse word simply because we stub our toes and using a curse word to elucidate the human condition as a call for edifying, positive change. Intent?

We can see why this issue is so complicated. My intellectual side pulls me one direction, but my experience with the world and human nature guides me in another.

It would be easier to take an entirely intellectual approach and argue that anything should be permitted in art or expression at any time, and everyone should just “get over it.” I’ve been down that road of thinking before…but then, what about “art” that exploits women, or even children? What happens in a world where there are no boundaries of taste—whatever taste is? Or parameters of right and wrong? It often seems like one of our more logical choices is to choose to celebrate a language, and an art, that revolves around goodness and love. Sure, words may be just words, but they are powerful and impossible to divorce from sociocultural baggage…so why not choose to fill our minds and hearts with good ones?

But back to Twain. Ultimately, do I think he should be bowdlerized? No. Absolutely not. The choice to read his words or not must remain with the individual. Do I think that he would be an easy read for a less mature or experienced reader? No. His humor is sometimes subtle, his writing complex. It might be tempting for some readers to take him at face value—and there is one of the problems. I also taught To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favorite novels of all time. Harper Lee used the n-word, too, but she was more straightforward about her message: it is easier for young students to see that the only characters who use that word are utterly uneducated buffoons, including the antagonist of the novel. It is easier to teach students the context, for them to see how she uses the word in the mouths of the villains to make a point about racism. Twain is not always as clear, even though his point is similar. With my own children, I will teach them these novels when I am convinced that their reading comprehension is sophisticated enough to deal with the cultural weight of it.

Other films and novels they will have to choose on their own, when they are adults—and that is the point of all that Bill and I seek to teach them. How to make good choices… What to put in their minds and hearts, and above all, why.

I think much would be lost if, in the revision of Twain’s works, we lose the ability as Americans, as people, to have this discussion.

When I taught To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM), I often read certain passages aloud to my students. We would have a discussion about the n-word. I told them that my choice, as a human being, was that I would not be saying the word when we read. I know that probably offended a handful, and rightfully—it was my own form of personal censorship I guess. Except: they could still read and see the word as it was printed on the page. Each of us has to make her own choices. I supported my colleagues who would read those words aloud, and I respected the logic that led them to do so. It came from a caring, loving place, just as my choices did. Those colleagues were just as important to the freedom of our literature, if not moreso, than I was to the cause of individual choice. All American high school English teachers deal with this issue, and many of us fret about it late at night. I will always maintain that students needed to see how all of us dealt with those words, to know that one day they would have to choose, and that there were good arguments on both sides.

One of the joys of our glorious freedom in this country is that we can still debate this subject in a meaningful way. Gather your joy in thoughtful freedom today!

 

 

 

 

Of all the pictures arranged on the memorial table at my Grandpa Yoder’s funeral reception last week, the picture of the old Yoder farmhouse, a red wooden structure surrounded by trees, in Indiana took up the deepest root in my mind and heart. He had kept it in his office, and I’d never seen it. Some part of me comes from there. So often I have felt a fundamental connection to my Amish Mennonite ancestry; in fact, my dad’s side of our family also hails from generations of farmers in California. Farm blood is my blood. I celebrate the attention and reverence that farm values place upon working with our hands and finding glory in a job well done, upon the simple pleasures and basics of life, upon the importance of family and working together. The down-to-earthness.

In another serendipitous common thread winding among events happening in my life, my mom gave me several cross stitch projects and supplies for Christmas. Knowing of my love for all things Amish, one of the patterns she gave me features an Amish countryside village with horses and buggies. During Christmas, I had a chance to glance at only briefly as I was helping Katie with her gifts.

Today I pulled the gift back out. In one of those amazing life coincidences that leaves one speechless, I noticed for the first time the wording on the top of the pattern. To be stitched above the scene are the words “BIRD IN HAND.” I could almost feel the breath leave my body. She bought that pattern months ago; I had been considering titling this blog “birdinyourhand” for some few days before Christmas, before ever opening the gift. What are the chances of all these elements—my ancestry, my core values, my outlet for expression (my blog), etc—coming together right at this one time? I am going to have to ponder this one…

My dad, Richard Matics, and I were speaking of  down-to-earth farm values this afternoon, in fact, as we discussed the main values of his real estate company. He owns Matics Realty Inc, and we’ve been working on writing the content for his website. My brother’s MIL (mother-in-love) Lorraine Ryba, one of the owners of PuterWerkZ, has been designing the site. Only the completion of the written content is needed for official launch, and so my dad and I sat down for a second writing session today. My dad and I work well together: he talks about what he values and the facts, and I write and edit the content into paragraphs. It gets a little hectic at moments with the two kiddos as busy as ever—I can’t exactly report that I have quiet working conditions—but there is joy even in the loud loveliness. My mom came over, too, and she and Katie both were squealing in delight while playing hide-and-go-seek.

I am a creature, by nature, of the quietest and calmest and most solitudinous times of night. Always have been. Learning to work, think, and exist amid the bustle and delightful squeals and chatter and clinkings of toys has been a great challenge for me as a mother.  As much as I have always encouraged joyful noise and singing, still I sometimes crave a moment of silence with every fiber of my body—and it might only be 10:00 in the morning. Thank goodness, again, for my previous career in teaching, which conditioned me well to have patience and postponement and to embrace different needs and different voices craving recognition all at once. Thank goodness, too, for four years of living with roommates and dormmates in college, and for learning how to create a personal space in one compartment of my mind that I can go to for a five minute breather when I need to tune back in to my inner calm.

It is the time when life seems the busiest that we must return to our fundamentals. We return to our inner farm, and plant the authentic seeds of ourselves anew. Let us gather our joy—and our wits and our written voices and our moments of personal calm—in the midst of life’s most bouncy bustle.