Join the Club
I was watching the History Channel series on the history of Britain (again). I think I’ve seen the episode called “Two Winstons” at least three times now. I like the approach to modern Britain— the primary thesis is that the central figures of twentieth century Britain are George Orwell (who created the hero Winston Smith in 1984) and Winston Churchill. It occured to me tonight that they could add a third— John Lennon (Dr. Winston O’Boogie). Orwell and Churchhill had few things in common, but one thing they had in common was that they both did poorly in school. I’m in that club too.
I discovered some of the “themes” I wrote for my remedial English class. I get a kick out of the comments. The most common one, of course, is inadequate preparation. How many 18-year-olds are adequately prepared? And the ever-present spelling errors— some repeat. Mechanically, I could barely muster a D. My ideas, however, were constantly in B territory, and I was constantly admonished “but don’t kill your good vocabulary” Let me get this straight— I can’t pass unless I spell everything correctly, but I shouldn’t use words I can’t spell (which included most words, at that time). It was 1977. I also had to giggle at being corrected for saying “Multimedia is a powerful teaching tool”— the teacher marked it as wrong, because “multimedia is plural”— What moron grammarian would say multimedia are a powerful teaching tool, or, to recast it a bit, who worries about saying “ the media is slanted” rather than “the media are slanted”? I used it in the sense of a collective noun, not as a plural. This crap is strictly for pedantic morons— I was fresh from an artistic presentation using multiple slide projectors and music— now relatively standard pedagogical practice, especially in the arts— and thought I had seen the future of education. How dare she dampen my excitement by picking nits!
Composition teaching has come a long way from the rubber stamped grading of problems, marked out mercilessly in red ink. Now, I don’t know a single teacher who forces students to write misspelled words fifty times (as this teacher did). Most good teachers these days recognize that all errors are usually repetitive— the first step is to recognize the pattern of error and focus on that, rather than berating someone because they make errors.
I wonder how the grammar cops would respond to knowing that I scored in the top five or ten percent in verbal skills on the GRE last year, or that I now teach writing? Literature, the literature that I was “inadequately prepared” to read or write about, taught me— not any teacher’s red pen. I can laugh about it now, but at the time it was horribly traumatic. I dropped out of that remedial English class because I was going to make a C. I knew better than that; I wasn’t average and I would be damned if I would let them stamp me that way just because I had a problem with spelling, or because I had a tendency to “distort my thesis.” I still constantly distort my initial thesis; I think that is what theses are made for. Anyone who lands in the same place they started from really hasn’t gone anywhere.
Obviously, I’m not in the same place now. I’m glad. Flunking out of school was good enough for Orwell, so it was good enough for me. However, that’s not strictly true. Once I became “adequately prepared,” I sailed through my BA with nearly a 4.0 average. Sometimes I think that college is certainly wasted on the young. Or perhaps more accurately, if you’re wasted (as I certainly was), school isn’t the best thing for you to spend time doing.