Thursday, June 19, 2014

I'd like to thank my English teachers

Photo by Pimthida via Flickr
Words have always held a certain allure for me. Reading them, writing them, noticing them. Every year as soon as I got the chance I'd grab my older brother's English textbook and read through all of the stories. It was ever so much more interesting than wading through "See Jane run. Run Jane, run." When I first started school Dick and Jane were still running and Spot was chasing balls. Exciting stuff, right there. Thank goodness for older brothers and libraries and being able to read before I entered kindergarten because I'm fairly certain if Dick, Jane, Spot and all of their friends had been my first exposure to reading I would not have been nearly as enamored with the whole idea.

I can't say that I had the same affinity for studying grammar. Diagramming sentences seemed like a deathly dull task when there were stories to be read, and I'm fairly certain that I slept through most of my Grammars of English class in college. (I checked out some time after the section on the history of the English language and couldn't tell you much more about it than that the English language is a beautiful and complicated thing precisely because we drew from so many origins.) I am completely aware that sometimes in my writing I fail to use less than stellar grammar, and it took me until my second year in college to understand what comma splices were. I'm probably still very guilty of using them.

Still, the basic structure behind crafting a literate sentence stuck with me, and although I had to resort to Google to remind myself of what a participle is and why it shouldn't dangle, I know how to use them correctly because my English teachers drilled it into us over and over again with all of those irritating sentence diagrams. (Participle - irritating. Subject - sentence diagrams.)

It was a bit of a shock when I went back to school for my accounting degree and discovered that the new crop of students didn't really understand how to write a decent research paper. I spent the next two and a half years telling group members, "No, really, let me take this and I'll just edit (completely rewrite) it a bit." In all fairness, probably most of them were business students precisely because they didn't get excited at the thought of writing a twenty page research paper. But I assumed that somewhere journalism classes still flourished, and teachers still taught eager would-be writers how to write for comprehension.

I'm going to choose to believe that the incidences which spurred this blog post are not the fault of any English teachers. I'm going to assume that they are still out there, diagramming away, correcting faulty use of language and doing their best to encourage clarity of thought in their students' writing. I'm going to assume that some students just aren't listening. Because I don't know how else to explain a headline like this, "Illegal Shotgun Owner Used in Killing Sentenced." (Was the shotgun owner used in the killing? Was the shotgun sentenced?) Or a news article that says this, "The people of Wessington Springs are getting some of their first glimpses of the devastation left by a tornado in full sunlight Thursday morning." (I'm sorry, Wessington Springs, my heart really does go out to all who lost homes and property in the tornado that happened on WEDNESDAY night in what we can presume was not full sunlight. I am glad that there appear to have been no serious injuries beyond the slaughtering of basic sentence structure. If you want to help, you can donate through the Red Cross website, simply designate your donation for Wessington Springs.)

I'd like to assume that the web content was written by some high school intern and was swiftly corrected by the journalism majors who run the show. But in the first case the headline is still there in all of its ungrammatical glory so clearly someone either doesn't care or is sleeping on the job. Maybe it's just the difference between print and television journalism. Maybe in the quest to get news out at an ever increasing pace the idea of proofreading for clarity has become old-fashioned.

Whatever the reason, I'd like to thank my English teachers.

I'd like to thank them for teaching me how to write sentences that make sense, even when it meant sentence diagrams that filled the entire chalkboard.

I'd like to thank them for teaching us that quality matters more than quantity. And for exposing us to authors who threw all of the established rules out the window and made it work.

I'd like to thank them for drilling into us the idea that we must proofread everything. (I'd also like to thank the world for not inventing computers that check spelling and grammar until after I'd learned to proofread my own work.) If I could offer one teeny-tiny suggestion it would be that they could have improved upon it by making us proofread papers while having classmates intermittently walk up to us saying "Mom! Mom! Hey mom, watch this! Mom, I'm hungry! Mom, guess what? Mom, look at how I can squeeze the top off of my string cheese! Mom, watch me juggle my clothes!" (In short, I'm blaming any proofreading misses on my children.)

I'd like to thank them for all of the hours they put into reading and correcting term papers. I'd especially like to thank my senior English teacher for not saying "Really? Twenty pages on the history of the conflict in Ireland? Do I look like I have time to read that?"

I'd like to thank them for all of the assigned reading that I loved, and even for the books that I hated. I'll admit that I read a lot of fluff these days, but thanks to them I can pretty well tell the difference between fluff and writing that will stand the test of time.

I'd like to thank them for making us do poetry journals, both the finding of poems that we liked and the writing of original work. Those were some of my favorite things ever except for the part where we had to illustrate them. I thank them for not marking down for the use of stick figures.

I'd like to thank my high school English teacher for agreeing when I summarized Of Human Bondage as basically being a book about a guy who lives. He taught me that great literature still contains an element of personal taste. And that perhaps some books are best understood after a little more life experience, although I haven't tested that theory by going back and re-reading it because once was quite enough for me.

I'd like to thank all of the elementary teachers who taught me English as part of their daily schedule. I'd like to thank them for all of the kite tails and caterpillars that we got to add to with every book we finished, because I was a competitive little person and that was pretty much the only thing I was going to excel at.

I'd like to thank them for teaching me to use both a dictionary and a thesaurus.

Most of all I'd just like to thank them for teaching me that language is vibrant and beautiful and ever changing. For teaching me to cherish words and to choose them wisely. For teaching me that the written and spoken word is both a powerful tool and a breath-taking story.

Thank you, English teachers. Some of us listened.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The rubber stamp

Photo by Sudhamshu Hebbar via Creative Commons license at Flickr

When he was little and still home with me by himself during the days, sometimes Kyle liked to 'help' me in my office. One of  his favorite ways of helping involved the use of (to him) the Holy Grail of office equipment...the rubber stamp. Position it over the line on the check (with my help), press down hard and 'ka-thunk' a perfect signature comes out. Every single time. John X. John X. John X. It isn't my signature, I'm not responsible for this check, John X is. I don't even have to think about it.

There have been many times in my life when I let someone else become my rubber stamp. I didn't have to think about anything, bear any responsibility for my own choices or thoughts because I just grabbed what that person said and 'ka-thunk' a perfect replica of their thoughts became my own. The problem with that is that sometimes deep inside I'd think "well, that doesn't feel quite right". But these were spiritual leaders, trusted friends, 'very smart people'. Surely they had to be right, and I, with all my uncertainties, fears and questions, had to be wrong.

And then, gradually, I began to change. I wasn't quite so quick to use that rubber stamp of approval for everything.  I began to question. Sometimes I even began to speak up when I felt I was right. I soon found that there were two types of people in my life; those who resented any questioning that implied disagreement, and those that welcomed the stretching and growth that questioning is supposed to bring. Sometimes my failure to rubber stamp those in authority ruffled feathers, sometimes it got me in trouble. Many times it showed me when it was time to walk away from a person or a situation.

Questioning can be a frightening thing. If you're wrong, you can't blame it on anyone else. It can lead you to see where change is necessary, and sometimes (ok, often) change is hard. But this is where the real growth happens. Looking at the thoughts and attitudes you've stamped over your life and deciding for yourself; does this fit me? Does it mesh with my ideals? What does God really have to say about the matter? It takes a lot of digging. It takes digging into Scripture with the desire to hear from God. It takes digging into history, digging into the news, expanding your knowledge. It takes a willingness to be wrong but to keep on digging down until you get it right.

I've learned that we don't always have to be in agreement with every single thing that someone says. We can disagree about politics, we can disagree about economics, we can disagree about what color to paint the walls. We can wrestle with the Bible and all of its many interpretations. And maybe the important part isn't so much the getting to the right answers, but the journey we take to get there, the willingness to soak ourselves in the questions, to ASK the questions.

Today, don't be afraid to tackle the big questions. It really is ok to ask yourself WHY you believe what you do. Put down the rubber stamp that someone else handed you. You are not a copy of anyone else, find your own voice and your own thoughts. Look to those around you for help, for inspiration, for the wisdom that they've gleaned through their own wrestling, but don't just let their answers become yours.

What questions are you wrestling with today? What rubber stamps do you need to give up?

Wednesday, May 7, 2014


Photo by dan_alive via Creative Commons license at Flickr

I have lost you to the sea,
Watching over the years
As bit by bit its waters advanced
Crumbling away at the ground of you
Until you were consumed.
All the words and memories,
Every grain of you
Swept out to into depths
Where I cannot follow.
I circle this unknown
Searching for any sign of you
Sending out the familiar signals
That would always bring you running
But your eyes are an ocean
With depths I can no longer plumb
And I wonder if you are there at all
Hiding in the deep
Calling out to be found.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

'That' woman

Photo by Elaine via Flickr
Yeah, you know her. You secretly cringe when you hear her mentioned. In your mind you count the number of ways you just don't measure up to her. She's got great clothes and you're knocking about in your sweats. She's an entrepreneur, a real estate investor, and a philanthropist; her husband is highly respected in the community. She's got it all. She's also got servants. Yep, I'm talking about HER; the Proverbs 31 woman.

This woman is a dynamo, charging through life running her own business, cooking, gardening, shopping, sewing and who knows what else. I read the list and think "I cannot possibly begin to measure up to this woman!" I forget about everything that I accomplish in my frustration over not being able to be HER.

Let's not forget something in our rush to measure ourselves against her. She's fictional. And really, aren't they all? These women that we measure ourselves against, be they bloggers, friends, neighbors, the woman at the grocery store with an impeccably dressed, clean, and non-fart-joke-telling nine year old boy, aren't they all a bit of fiction created in our minds when we take our little snapshots of them and assemble them into something that we think is the whole picture?

Some days I feel more like a limp noodle than someone who is 'strong to the task'. The list of things that I think I ought to be doing is longer than the list of things that I've done. Sometimes I need to consciously list the things that I accomplished in any given day and make the choice to be grateful for them. They are my accomplishments, no one else's. I did get up this morning. (Anyone who has ever struggled with just wanting to stay in bed with the covers over your head, give yourself a pat on the back for just getting up.) I did manage to feed my children breakfast. Was it a fully balanced, no preservative added, home cooked meal? No, it was Honeycomb cereal. Cereal that I managed to go buy at the store yesterday because I FORGOT to buy cereal last week when I shopped and so I think I get bonus points for throwing in an extra trip to the store just so that my children would be fed. And even though as of 12:43 I have spent the last three hours producing essentially no new writing, I've managed to play with and delete at least three ideas that were going nowhere. Which is still three ideas. OK, three ideas and a poem about Alzheimer's for a writing group prompt.

The next time you're tempted to compare yourself to someone else, whether that person is fictional or living next door, stop. Take a moment to consider what you do. What would be YOUR list of accomplishments for the day? Write them down, no matter how mundane they seem to you. Look at it and realize just how much you really do; realize just how important you are to those who matter in your life and be at peace with yourself.

This post is republished (and slightly rewritten) from my old blog. Because I'm too much of a perfectionist to just hit 'publish' on all of them without editing. Also because they come in handy when I can't come up with anything new.