Here’s a little lesson in humility for the following:
* Every North American who sees no value in learning our own language well, let alone anyone else’s
* Every North American who makes fun of people who come from other countries and struggle to live in our country, learn our culture, and speak our language
Over the years, I have led numerous grammar “review” sessions at various colleges and universities where I’ve been a professor. These sessions cover the three major problem areas for most people:
3. Irregular verbs, especially transitive and intransitive (the biggies are lie vs. lay)
Did you notice how I put the word review in quotation marks? That’s because, for many of my students, it’s the first time they’ve ever heard it.
Of course there are other trouble spots. These are the main ones that lots of people get wrong, including many “professional” writers. Again, note my use of quotation marks.
In all my years of review sessions with hundreds of students, most of whom have come through our public K-12 schools, I have met only one student who already knew this material thoroughly — knew it so well, in fact, that he was able to stay one step ahead for most of the review session.
Want to know where he’s from?
*PS: If you caught all eight errors in my headline, then you are probably either: a) as frustrated as I am at the appalling state of language instruction in the United States; or b) foreign.
“Sssshhh; we need to use our inside voices,” I caution my students primly as we leave the sunlit campus courtyard to head back inside the building.
This is met with a burst of raucous laughter from my twenty- and thirtysomething students before we settle into a tasteful silence as we enter the hallways. Our decorum lasts mere seconds before we break into fresh merriment. They’re a witty group, and no one is exempt from the gentle barbs … including the professor. (Lest anyone think we are using the fine weather as an excuse to goof off, I will add that the students have been sharing with one another their rough drafts for a final project, and the fresh air and green space helped to sharpen their mental faculties. Their comments on their classmates’ work are detailed, respectful and astute.)
“This is the best English class I have ever had,” Kaytlyn chuckles. “I’ve been telling everyone they need to try to get you as their teacher.”
I live for simple pleasures like this. A day warm enough to hold class outside, laughing loudly enough to disturb everyone in the classrooms inside. An afternoon at the farmer’s market, chatting with the rosy-cheeked, suspendered Amish (Mennonite?) vendor about the absence of GMOs in the food he gives his chickens. And he shows me their picture: fat, glossy and smug, strutting around among patches of bright emerald-green grass. A simple meal of fresh, local, organic food in season. And a tree so beautiful on my afternoon walk it takes my breath away.
Spring took forever to get here, but today made it worth the wait. Well worth it.
For today’s poem, my usual source at Writer’s Digest challenges us to write a beyond poem. “The poem could be beyond human comprehension,” Robert Lee Brewer writes. “It could be from the great beyond. It could be from beyond–another city, country, planet, solar system, dimension, etc. Don’t be afraid to go above and beyond with it.”
For my offering, I am reconstructing from memory a poem I wrote in third grade as a school assignment. My teacher was so impressed (I believe she used the word “precocious” several times), she had the principal read it over the loudspeaker. My mother was so unimpressed she immediately threw it away. I’ve tried to be faithful to the original as I wrote it; however, with the passage of time, some of the lines have faded from memory. I’ve had to reconstruct those as best I could. Others, however, are recorded here exactly as I wrote them.
A few people may wonder how a third-grade child could possibly possess such a vocabulary. Here’s the quick answer: I come from a long line of educators, I read constantly as a child while my classmates were busily developing their athletic and social skills, and I was always the classic bookworm: painfully shy, slightly nerdy, and infinitely more savvy about how to diagram a sentence than how to hang upside down by the knees on the monkey bars.
First, then, the assignment, which probably every school child in America has done at some point: First we read the famous poem “Nancy Hanks” by Rosemary Benet. Then we read the response by Julius Silberger. Our assignment was to write our own response to Nancy Hanks. Mine, titled “Beyond Your Wildest Dreams,” appears immediately below.
If Nancy Hanks
Came back as a ghost,
Of what she loved most,
She’d ask first
“Where’s my son?
What’s happened to Abe?
What’s he done?”
“Poor little Abe,
Left all alone
Except for Tom,
Who’s a rolling stone;
He was only nine
The year I died.
I remember still
How hard he cried.”
In a little shack,
With hardly a shirt
To cover his back,
And a prairie wind
To blow him down,
Or pinching times
If he went to town.”
“You wouldn’t know
About my son?
Did he grow tall?
Did he have fun?
Did he learn to read?
Did he get to town?
Do you know his name?
Did he get on?”
* * *
A Reply to Nancy Hanks
Yes, Nancy Hanks,
The news we will tell
Of your Abe
Whom you loved so well.
You asked first,
“Where’s my son?”
He lives in the heart
* * *
And here was mine:
Beyond Your Wildest Dreams*
Ann Louise Graham, age 8
If indeed Nancy Hanks were among us today,
What news would I give her? What words would I say?
That her son grew up tall, and he learned how to read,
And his work saw a nation’s oppressed people freed.
“What’s happened to Abe?” Nancy asks. “What’s he done?”
He’s a lasting example to most everyone.
With his words on our lips, in our minds and our hearts,
His ideal never falters, nor ever departs.
You questioned us, Nancy, for news of your son.
Yes, Abe Lincoln got on, Nancy Hanks. He got on.
Today’s poetry challenge from Writer’s Digest is to write a poem about some sort of infestation. Looking over some of the selections from earlier this morning, I find the usual infestations of insects and love/obsessions, plus some rather inventive ideas about infestations. Mine isn’t so much inventive, perhaps, as it is timely. This is about an infestation that is all too common in our schools.
Sign of the times
It could be just a hoax.
Some kid wanting a day off from school,
Or some kid who’s angry and doesn’t know how else to say it,
Or maybe just some kid writing stuff on bathroom walls
For no reason.
But it was in my inbox from corporate HQ,
And all the local schools are on alert,
(Although many have dismissed it as a copycat prank)
And most important,
My daughter had heard it, and was concerned.
And I don’t want my town to be next in the headlines.
And certainly not my daughter.
There have been so many towns
In so many headlines,
And so many daughters,
And so much national grief.
So today she has a headache
Which I informed her yesterday she would wake up with this morning.
That’s your story, and you’re sticking to it, I said.
Be consistent, and tell everyone you have a headache, I said,
Even your best friends.
And I thought, how ironic,
That the best proof I have today of my parental excellence,
Is how thoroughly I’ve coached her on how she should lie
In order to be safe.