November 2009


If you want a quick three-word description of what my life feels like lately, look at the title and you might get what I’m saying. (The Easter egg might also help, if you see it.)

Most of this feeling is unrelated to teaching (and is generally stuff that I wouldn’t want to spill on an unsuspecting and largely indifferent reading audience), but the sudden realization I had yesterday that there are only three weeks of school left before Christmas break most certainly is related. Ooh boy.

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Today, I did what I had to do: I fought what may be a sinus infection all day to make it to school to provide comfort for at least some of my students. Consequently, I quickly found out that the teacher who passed away, familiarly called “H” by students and colleagues alike, had had a profound impact on so many people.

That made it incredibly difficult. One colleague gave the announcement this morning, and having been at the school for years, he had a hard time making the announcement. The student who normally does the pledge bowed out (H had been a family friend, I understand), and the secretary, bless her heart, broke down crying in the middle of giving the pledge in the student’s place. It was so hard to listen to because the grief was palpable.

And then there was silence, something which has never (to my knowledge) happened at the beginning of my 1st hour class. So I told them, “I’m sorry, but I have to break the silence. We have to talk about this.”

And what ensued was a beautiful session of catharsis.

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I woke up this morning feeling pretty awful. My ribs and collarbone ached, and this turned into (over the course of the day) a full body ache that makes me think I’m getting sick.

At one point, I came by the house to get some medicine in the midst of running all over the place doing other things, thinking, I haven’t used any sick days yet…this would be a good time for it. And I have a message from a number with the same prefix as the district I teach in.

It’s the secretary, telling me that the teacher who I ultimately replaced (with one teacher between us) had passed away. I call her back for details, and she really has none. I tell her that I had been thinking about calling in sick, but that’s out the window now: I can’t abandon my students, especially the seniors who had this teacher as sophomores in her last year of teaching.

I honestly don’t know what I’m going to say tomorrow, although I know that I can’t really teach at least my senior English class. I’m going to have to let them know that I’m here for them and to lend a sympathetic ear. I don’t even think I know what I would do otherwise.

Tomorrow will be hard, especially if I feel the way I do. This is a moment, though, that I cannot afford to lose with my seniors, who are (now, finally) somewhat back on board with me after many of them starting to show signs that I’m losing them. If I didn’t show up when they will be grieving so for this beloved teacher – the teacher they were just talking up on Friday in a class discussion – then I would really be disrespecting them. I just have to bite the bullet and be there, in whatever shape I’m in. The students will likely do the same.

I don’t know if I’ll help at all. But the fact of the matter is that I have to try, and hopefully that will mean something.

I happened to catch a TV ad for the Illinois Lottery’s holiday campaign, entitled “Joy Someone”. My first thought: Is this a new sense of the verb joy? I knew the intransitive sense of “rejoice; take joy in,” but this transitive sense was new to me.

Well, I no longer have access to the OED Online (darn you, alma mater!), but I can at least see free dictionaries, and lo and behold, I found:

v.tr. Archaic
1. To fill with ecstatic happiness, pleasure, or satisfaction.
2. To enjoy.

So the sense of “to make joyful” is there, but it is mostly obsolete. I am skeptical that the creators of the ad knew this, opting instead just to use this existing intransitive sense of the verb form (which I think is rare, although I could be wrong) and use it transitively. (Linguists: Is there a term for using an otherwise intransitive verb in a transitive sense?)

But at least there is precedent for it, and that makes my inner grammar snob feel better.

Short version: Sometimes they’re wrong.

Okay, the background – I purchased a small class set of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for my novels class, and we’re getting through it right now. While the students are digging into the monster’s narrative about his life after being created (and rewriting/paraphrasing it), I’ve been reading ahead to have some ideas for discussion.

My students have also expressed difficulty in understanding much of this novel, which is due in no small part to the fact that all of the novels we have thus covered – Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Great Gatsby – have been 20th century American novels, and Frankenstein is early 19th century British. One of the nice things about this text, however, has been a glossary of endnotes and a vocabulary reference at the back of the book, broken down by chapter so that students can refer to them. It’s worked okay for some, not as much for others; one student has been asking me about certain words, and I’ve found that explaining some words – like traverse – takes a little more than a simple denotative explanation. Still, it’s reasonably helpful.

That is, when it’s right.

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Right now, about 3/8ths of a year into my teaching career, feels like a valley.

You see, I’m at a frustrating point where I have a decent idea of what I should do (at least in general terms) to improve my teaching immensely…but it’s just not happening, and the blame for that is entirely on me. It’s like seeing an object and reaching your arms and hands outward, outward, short of the goal, and falling flat on your face — because you haven’t taken the few steps forward to put it within reach.

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Todd Whitaker has this little bit that he talks about in person (and he’s done it both times I’ve seen him) where he talks about teachers who say things like, “I’ve told Billy a thousand times not to do that.” His remark: “Now there’s a slow learner.” (After a few seconds, you start to realize that Whitaker’s not talking about Billy…)

Sometimes I feel like that teacher.

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I am so far behind, both here and in real life, so here are some highlights of the past, uh, week or so:

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Since finishing my last book, I have moved on to a book I have wanted to read for ages, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. As a parent of a child with autism, I have heard interesting things about the fact that this story is written from the point of view of a person who has autism and speaks frankly about it. I can’t speak directly to how an autistic person sees the world, but I think that the way Haddon approaches the writing is very authentic, and it is written with first-hand experience of autistic individuals: Haddon had worked previously with autistic children. It’s a very compelling work; I started it today and am already about 75% done with it.

So far, two very interesting topics have jumped out to me. The first is a literary issue, concerning metaphors:

The word metaphor means carrying something from one place to another, and it comes from the Greek words μετα (which means from one place to another) and φερειν (which means to carry), and it is when you describe something by using a word for something that it isn’t. This means that the word metaphor is a metaphor.

I think it should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people do not have skeletons in their cupboards. And when I try and make a picture of the phrase in my head it just confuses me because imagining an apple in someone’s eye doesn’t have anything to do with liking someone a lot and it makes you forget what the person is talking about.  (p.15)

And shortly thereafter in a footnote concerning the sentence “It looked as if there were two very small mice hiding in his nostrils”:

This is not a metaphor; it is a simile, which means that it really did look like there were two very small mice hiding in his nostrils, and if you make a picture in your head of a man with two very small mice hiding in his nostrils, you will know what the police inspector looked like. And a simile is not a lie, unless it is a bad simile. (p.17)

Forgiving some obvious errors – the phrasing “a pig is not like a day” indicates a simile, which is explicitly not problematic according to the narrator Christopher, and “the apple of my eye” is not so much a metaphor as an idiom – I find the evaluative distinction between a metaphor and simile to be fascinating, mostly because both are examples of figurative language, language that is explicitly not meant to be taken literally. (Of course, one can reliably assume that an autistic narrator will be prone to errors of hyperliteralism; it’s a stereotype. Christopher in particular is also very opposed to lies in general, so bringing out this point isn’t surprising.) It should give us pause, however, in our own language use to consider those disadvantaged groups that may have problems with comprehension: language learners and those with linguistic delays or deficiencies.

(I also had never really thought about the etymology of the word metaphor: it is definitely very meta.)

The second is more contemplative, which is Christopher’s musing on prime numbers:

Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them. (p.12)

Dead on, in my opinion.

I don’t even have to finish reading this book to tell you, faithful reader, that you should read this book if you haven’t already. If nothing else, it will give you some insight into a more diverse way of seeing the world, and you will find yourself entertained in the process.

If one can be considered a fan of some grammatical artifact, I am a fan of the subjunctive mood, for some undefinable reason. Maybe it’s because the subjunctive is somewhat of an endangered species, having all but disappeared from modern English. I’m not a stickler about it – I don’t know that I can really be called a stickler about anything grammatical other than the bare essentials for communication – but I have been known to advise students in feedback about its formal use. Yes, it might be acceptable in general to say something like “If I was six feet tall, I would be much better at basketball” even though the subjunctive would call for the construction “If I were six feet tall…”

However, I suggest that there are instances where understanding of the remaining uses of the subjunctive mood or at least the underlying reasons for its existence are useful, since it does still exist but is rarely ever taught explicitly. Generally, this should consist at least of an understanding that the subjunctive can be used to express a state or proposition that is contrary to fact.

Some real-life situations:

  1. A student in one of my classes was talking about something gender-related (I don’t recall the specifics) and asked me, “Mr. B, if you were a guy–“; at this point, I interrupted and said, “Whoa, wait a minute: are you saying that I’m not a guy?” He didn’t intend (I think) to communicate this piece of information, but it was communicated nonetheless through the construction.
  2. Similarly, my wife recently started out a sentence, “If I were me,” at which point I remarked that she must have some severe identity (and logic) issues.

So even if the subjunctive is on its way to extinction, despite my affinity for it, understanding the remnants of this mood can in fact be useful. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.