Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Absentee authors

The morning's poem from The Writer's Almanac sends shivers down my spine.

The Student Theme

Ronald Wallace
The adjectives all ganged up on the nouns,
insistent, loud, demanding, inexact,
their Latinate constructions flashing. The pronouns
lost their referents: They were dangling, lacked
the stamina to follow the prepositions' lead
in, on, into, to, toward, for, or from.
They were beset by passive voices and dead
metaphors, conjunctions shouting But! or And!
The active verbs were all routinely modified
by adverbs, that endlessly and colorlessly ran
into trouble with the participles sitting
on the margins knitting their brows like gerunds
(dangling was their problem, too). The author
was nowhere to be seen; was off somewhere.

"The Student Theme" is just darling up to the last line, when one suddenly discovers that it's real genre is sheer horror. That last line reminds me of the fact that just a few short weeks I'll be back in the classroom, reading too many student essays that are remarkable for the absence of their authors.

But then I'll tell myself--as I've always done--that I was no better. How many of my assigned papers, back then, really wrung blood, sweat, or tears from my student soul? How often did I plumb the rarefied depths of profundity back then? Maybe a few stanzas from Simon and Garfunkel. In May, it'll be 40 years since I graduated from college, and I remember precious few essay assignments.

And yet, something happened--no epiphanies that I remember--that made me think that higher education was the place I wanted to be. Despite the fact that, often enough, I likely "wasn't there" either, I wanted a life in an playful arena of interesting ideas. I wanted to be a teacher in college. I wanted to teach literature. I wanted to write.

I don't think I ever wanted to read student essays, but once I stepped into the classroom, I began to recognize that absentee authors come with the territory.

Besides, there's always a gem or two or three in the lot--a half dozen whose adjectives and adverbs know their places, a few in which rough-hewn Anglo-Saxon nouns are substantially concrete and lively verbs jump off the page. And heart. And sometimes, really, there's just so much heart that you know you're getting whatever blood, sweat, and tears add up to.

That too, two weeks from now. That too.

"The Student Theme" by Ronald Wallace, from The Uses of Adversity. (c) The University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998. Reprinted without permission.

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