The indiscriminate bombardment of apostrophes upon a sentence.
I loved a lot of things about being a teacher.
I loved the big stuff. I loved being in regular, workaday contact with profoundly great writing. I loved sharing 50 minutes a day, three days a week, with young people excited to learn something new and be taken seriously by someone as dedicatedly unserious as me. I loved coaxing a shy kid to risk embarrassment and express a half-understood thought, only to see their fellow students to sit up, lean forward, and rebel against their own ingrained indifference. And O! how I loved the occasional weirdo who’d come to my office to show me something they’d been writing, or talk about a concept they heard in another class, or confess that they fell in wild, sloppymouthkissing love with a centuries-old poem or play – a dusty old thing they never imagined they would care about. That didn’t happen all the time. But it happened enough.
It’s a hell of a thing to see a young person, instructed by our foamy, crooked culture to aspire toward little more than shallow, uncreative consumption, suddenly discover the thrill of actually thinking… of engaging with an idea and wandering around inside a question with no greater goal in mind but the going. It’s never lost on me that the essay – that punishing yardstick we slap against young minds to prove their accumulated and organized understanding – got its name from the Old French essai, which meant, simply, to attempt.To try. It’s a lovely thing to see someone essay. We don’t essay enough.
But those were the big things. There were little, silly, idiosyncratic things, too. And they are what I really miss most. I miss watching the seasons change on campus. I miss walking to my car after class, covered in chalk dust like a bookish Welshman from a coal mine. I miss passing kids luxuriating in the quad, like sun-drunk lemur Buddhas. I miss the nicknames I’d give to kids too teenaged to tell me their preferred diminutive. I once asked a sphinxlike Joseph if he preferred that, Joey, or Joe. Upon his smirking insistence that I could call him whatever I wanted, I informed him he’d be going by Dumptruck for the rest of the semester. The nickname stuck. Good ol’ Dumptruck. I miss the snippets of conversations they’d bring in from the hallways, the valence of all their young dramas, all juiced up with youth and lust and shame and anger. The fun stuff. I miss that invisible moment, midway through every semester, when students finally relented, shed the last layer of their vanity, and shambled to class in their knotty hair and pjs. And my god, I miss the corduroy. Let me sing to you of corduroy…
And, certainly, while I won’t claim to miss grading papers until 1 am (I’m not the best at sticking to schedule)… I DO miss the linguistic surrealism freshmen brought to their writing. The extemporaneous bebop slop of their paragraphs. The tense-shifting, comma-splicing, participle-dangling grammar. And, my god, the apostrophes… O! the pell mell, drive-by mob hit of indiscriminate apostrophes. My Dear Reader: You want to stare into a murmuring well of shame? Ask a half-stoned freshman at a private college to explain the difference between its and it’s. Not just the what… but why.
I don’t mean to mock them, of course. Not at all. No one knows what they don’t know until they know it. I don’t blame them, and I’m not being mean (any more than I ever am… which is to say: just a little bit; just for flavor). They were kids. Their teachers were likely (definitely) as overworked as they were underpaid. They were all products of an educational model that prioritized testing the memorization of facts over demonstrating their mesmerization with learning. I speak of the boys, of course. The girls somehow (patriarchy) always managed to be capable and studious. Boys, in my experience, don’t fully molt their downy dumdummery until their 30s (patriarchy). (For those inclined to yell at me: I apologize for trafficking in the soft violence of the binary (patriarchy)).
And shit… let’s be fair: I’m no knockout grammarian, myself. I flub my grammar all the time. My sentences are chubby and purple and ponderous (fortunately, I look old enough to get away with calling it “style”). The passive voice, has at times, been employed (see what I did there?). It’s easy to forget that to actually know something, you have to start by not knowing it. Mistakes are, by and large, a good thing. Mistakes are the warm glow of an engine that’s thinking. But still… it always shocked me when, as I explained not merely the what, but the why of a certain grammatical rule… my students would react with forehead-slaps and semicomic amazement. “Oh, thaaaaaat’s whyyyy….”
It’s as if these kids – highschool graduates, all – were taught to drive a sentence, but with little time to contemplate the machinery that made it go. All driver’s ed. No auto repair. No time spent fiddling under the hood to see how a sentence runs while you’re using it, and why. Maybe I’m just a prattling old twit (I am), but I wish they (and I) had been instructed to appreciate the full breadth of language’s wit and utility: How with a mere fleck of ink an apostrophe can reorient the physical laws that govern a sentence. How they demonstrate the pliancy and playfulness of language. How subtly they denote possession, like a crooked eyebrow. How they stitch the severed halves of a contraction, and mend a sentence’s tone and feel and cadence. Oh it is pure magic, is it not? But alas, it seemed these muggle academies never taught the admiration for the swish and flick of it all. It was somehow enough for a student to remember that apostrophes were. Not where they go. And never why.
And so, no doubt, the night before the paper was due, scanning their essays for their apostrophe-shaped-holes, they’d err on the side of errything, and apply them with a flocking gun. Just hurl them into sentences by the heavy-handed hundredfold, as if flinging breadcrumbs at a flap of belligerent geese.
Am I ranting? Very well, I am ranting. I am given over to words, as is my way. But in my guts I long to feel this way about everything again. About what we say, and how we say it, and why.
Oh dear, I miss school today.