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Until Drops of Blood Form on Your Forehead

Teaching was indeed often “fun,” yet not without its frustrations.  I suspected my students dreaded reading Only Yesterday only slightly more than I.  I had never heard of Frederick Lewis Allen.  Unless it addressed, however tangentially, Hemingway’s experience as a meteoric literary figure in Paris, twenties American history, formal or “informal,” rarely interested me.  In high school and boarding school, I struggled through everybody’s twenties classic, The Great Gatsby.  Still, Allen’s writing, if often dry, was accessible; his subject matter pulled the student, if only for a little while, out of the drivel of Friends and Seinfeld and the mindless tumescence of “Me So Horny” 2 Live Crew; and the book’s various rhetorical techniques offered topics for discussion and writing.  Nonetheless, my “lectures” on the book were often met with bewilderment and silence. 

The second half of the course was somewhat enlivened with the next text: a collection of essays.  Its authors spanned the ages, from Swift and his famous “A Modest Proposal” (which, to my private embarrassment, I had no recollection of ever reading) to Stephen King and his explanation for our fascination with horror.  The essays, which could be read in a sitting even by the most easily-distracted youth, illustrated basic non-fiction rhetorical techniques: description, narration, compare and contrast, evaluation, process, argumentation, etc.  Many of the essays were interesting; one, Jessica Mitford’s discussion of embalming, was morbidly fascinating.  Yet generating classroom discussion of even contemporary matters was difficult.  Was I that unprepared, frightened, lacking in confidence as a college freshman?  Probably.  In any event, I enjoyed the discussions, lopsided though they often were.

What I quickly came to dread, however, was reading, commenting on, correcting, and grading the students’ papers―six per student, seven hundred to one thousand words per paper.  In the words of the great Thomas Wolfe, briefly a college instructor himself, the “huge damnation of that pile of unmarked themes . . .”  The grammatical ruin and ideational impoverishment of eighty percent of the papers throughout the semester staggered me.  Every ten days or so I’d face another mountain of tenses in disagreement; sentences incomplete; capital letters disregarded; periods missing; ideas tangled and incomprehensible; correction fluid applied with all the delicacy of a bricklayer; margins, lines, and paragraphs ill-formatted, even with papers obviously “word-processed.”  Slack-jawed, staring into space, I wondered, among other things:  Have any of these kids ever read a book cover to cover?  And: How many hours of MTV have contributed to this rhetorical wreckage?  And: Which concerns “Destini”―a student of mine rarely modest in matters of midriff―more: her ability to write or the visibility of that lightning bolt tattooed on the base of her spine?[1]  


[1] Speaking of which, the older I get, the more I am of the opinion that the masters distinguish themselves with education; the rest, with tattoos.  

2 thoughts on “Until Drops of Blood Form on Your Forehead”

  1. Funniest yet. I finally told my students that if they wanted comments on papers to tell me. If not, I would just grade it on the curve. and return it unmarked.

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