Day Zero

“The night ends, and the day, it begins.”

I was talking to my students this week about words that are often confused, by them, in their writing. When we got to fewer vs. less they were confused.

Me: So, use fewer when you can quantify it, and less when you can’t. For example, you have fewer calories, because you can count calories. But you have less fat, because you can’t count fat.

Student A: I count fat all the time.

Me: How do you count fat?

Student A: Like 30 grams.

Me: So you count grams.

Student A: Yeah. So.

Me: A gram is a unit of measurement, quite like a calorie, that you can count, specifically because you can’t count things like fat. You have to count something else that can actually be counted.

Student A: Oh…

Approximately 5 minutes later, we were all good, and Student A finally nodded, assured that fat wasn’t something that could be counted without the aid of quantifiable units of measurement. I suddenly felt like a math teacher instead of an English teacher, then things were all well with the world once more. Continue reading “Day Zero”

English As A First Language

english-language-day“I know English,” he tells me. “I was born here in America.”

“Then why don’t you use it correctly?” I want to ask, but I don’t. I don’t because I’m a teacher, and I’m worried that he won’t be receptive to the learning that’s about to take place.

“A lot of people who were born elsewhere can use English better than you can,” I want to say, but I stop myself. It’s not about others. It’s about him, and why he’s so resistant to getting better at the language others will judge him for in the future.

“There’s a difference between knowing English and being able to utilize it correctly in your writing, and we all have work to do that way,” I say instead. I can tell he’s trying to process that. Then he nods, and I know there’s still a chance for this kid.

He is a college freshman. Most of the kids I teach are. I am a writer, but teaching writing is a completely different animal. It takes a patience, a perseverance, an understanding, and a diligence that I’m not sure a lot of other professions have, because semester after semester there are always a few who feel they have nothing left to learn about the language we all love. They are wrong. The key is figuring out how to show them that without wounding their fragile egos.

If it’s in the dictionary that means I can use it.

The kids I teach today learned how to write using text messages and emojis. It has been an integral part of their world since day one, and auto-correct is their king. If auto-correct changes something they go with it, regardless of how ridiculous it sounds. If spell check says the word is “its” they’re going to rock with “its” until the day they die, no matter the circumstance.

“If it’s in the dictionary that means I can use it,” she tells me, turning her phone to show me that backs her up. I’m afraid to tell her that urbandictionary is not a real dictionary, that its words are largely made up and its definitions are wholly untenable.

“The dictionary has certain colloquialisms in it that, while they’re used in informal speech, have no place in formal writing,” I say, instead of telling her that she’s bowing down to a false idol.

grammar_timeI’ve learned a fascinating truth over the course of teaching for 10 years: It’s very difficult to teach people something they already feel they know. Learned habits and grammatical mistakes are compounded because they don’t listen when something is explained the correct way. They believe that having English as a first language makes them experts when it doesn’t. It hinders a lot more than it helps, especially in the classroom when I’m trying to remind them how to construct complete sentences.

I fell in love with English because of its complexity. I knew from an early age that the language identified as national by our country was a complete behemoth, that in order to tame it I would have to focus and understand just as much about the pitfalls as I did about the correct usage. I was enchanted by its idiosyncrasies and thought that to be its master would take a lifetime. It does.That’s because English is constantly changing, even from the time these college students were children to now.

“You know what I meant,” he says when he once again fails to capitalize the word “I.” And he’s right. I definitely knew what he meant, but that won’t help him when he does it on a cover letter for his dream job and that letter gets quickly recycled.

It doesn’t care that you learned English as a first language if you don’t use it correctly.

Because the beast that is English grammar cares not two whits about intention. It only cares about what resides on the page, what was actually written down. It doesn’t care that you learned English as a first language if you don’t use it correctly. And it matters. When there are 300 people applying for 10 jobs, and so many of them are comparable in terms of skills and experience, many resumes and cover letters are weeded out based on errors.

It’s called taking care of and cultivating this glorious language we’ve been entrusted with, not making excuses for why we haven’t done so. That’s why I spend so much time and effort working hard to make sure my students understand how massively important it is to master English, regardless of where you were born.


Seeing Orange

TN ORANGE WHITEI went to a college where everything was draped in orange, from the buildings themselves, to the attire in the school store, down to the lanyards and the cushions for fans to sit on at the football games. I’m surprised the beer at the bars near campus wasn’t all orange as well. That’s how much the school (nee, the town) bled orange, and probably still bleeds it to this day. In Knoxville, Tennessee, orange isn’t just a color; it’s a state of mind.

I used to like the color orange before I found myself at the University of Tennessee and everything I saw for miles around sported that color. It was on every license plate, on the flags that hung out car windows, adorning the menus at popular restaurants in the Knoxville area, and even on pet food. I don’t even want to know what they had to put in that pet food to make it the bright orange they advertised.

The Vols (and their rabid fans) pride themselves on supporting the team first, and everything else second. I haven’t lived in Knoxville for 15 years, but when the school made it to a bowl game last year I remember seeing orange when I looked in the stands at the game on TV. I tuned in because of some fascination with a school that I never truly identified with. Maybe it’s because I love green, and green doesn’t always go well with orange. Or maybe it was something else.

Syracuse CollarBut then I moved, and I thought I had left that insane amount of orange in my rearview, both physically and mentally. I got here, though, and because of this place’s proximity to Syracuse I was drawn in yet again. These fans aren’t quite as rabid about their Orangemen (and I suppose Orangewomen too) as Knoxvillians are about the Vols, but they aren’t too far off. And oh, the orange! It’s the same vibrant color I thought I had left behind, the same brilliant orange I thought was gone for good. Boy, was I wrong.

Now, this time of year, with the Syracuse basketball teams heading to the Final Four, the hysteria has hit a fever pitch. Nearly every person I saw today at the mall was wearing some variation of Orange, desperately trying to be a part of a surprise run by two teams none of these same people took to this position on their brackets. Is that hypocritical, to have so much support for a team now when they had no faith just three weeks ago? I don’t know, but don’t tell them you think it is. Those fans’ll take your head off.

I went to a college where everything was draped in orange, where the mascot was a droopy-eared dog who wore a mix between a shawl and a cape. But it was orange, so I guess it counted. I guess anything orange still counts. Which is both sad, and really, really cool. I’m just not quite sure which at the moment.


Looking Glass

I looked up from the calculator and the computer screen, satisfied that I had done everything I needed to do, that my affairs were all in order, and I closed out the browser with a sigh. One semester down. One semester of getting used to  being called Professor, of going to college on the other side of the equation. No longer a student. Now an instructor. And three months after I began it still seems a bit odd, but far less than it did in September.

I got to know the students quickly, playing the name game, having them write about what makes them unique on the very first day of classes. I’m tough that way, expecting something right off the bat, but there really was no other way to show them what they were going to get from me over the course of the next three months. And now that time is over, and I’ve said my goodbyes, and I have my schedule for spring, for the next four months of my teaching career.

As I looked at that blank computer screen I remembered doing the same thing nearly 11 years ago, when I first entered a high school classroom as a teacher. I felt inadequate back then. Who was I to grade the work of those students? Who was I to say who should pass and who should fail? It was as heavy a weight as I had ever had to bear before, and while this is similar it has even more of an edge to it. Because this is college.

When I was in college I wore jeans and the same four revolving t-shirts, replaced by three revolving sweatshirts in winter and the colder parts of spring and fall. I sat in the back of each one of my classes and made friends with the misfits back there. But I wasn’t a misfit, far from it. I was the kid who constantly had his hand in the air, waving it for emphasis or out of frustration. Sure, I got top of the line grades, but I was never satisfied. I realized as this fall  semester progressed that I’m the same as a professor, except I expect that drive to do well from each of my students.

But they’re not me, and I had to keep wrapping my brain around that, to keep reminding myself that my expectations had to be reined in and shifted to accommodate where they were coming from. I had to remember that this isn’t high school, that they needed to learn to   be responsible for themselves, that I couldn’t hold their hands, call their parents, and bleed out the worries that I had for some of them as the semester moved on like a downhill train.

So I followed some sort of hybrid strategy, emailing them when I was worried, trying to prod them along without mothering them. It was a tight-rope act of which I was proud, but was it enough to instill in them the intrinsic motivation they would need to persevere and pass the course?

I stared at that screen after submitting final semester grades, and I smiled because for the most part they did get it, they did follow my guidelines, and they did pass. Of course there were a few who didn’t make it, but overall they were leaps and bounds above where they had been when they began my composition course, and the grades proved it out. But more than that. The work they turned in by the end of the semester was better, more concise, more dynamic than even I could have hoped to see. And I’m looking forward to doing it all over again in the spring… times three.


To A Recent College Graduate

graduationDear Recent College Graduate,

I used to be you. 10 years ago when I was quite a bit younger and a few pounds lighter than I am now. And back then I thought I had the world at the tips of my fingers. But I was wrong. What I really had was a mound of debt courtesy of that college education I was so proud of at the time. The things I didn’t know could have filled a storage unit, yet I was blissfully ignorant of that at the time.

But you’re not like me. You’ve spent your entire life (all 10 minutes of it) finding answers to your questions via Google, and writing your papers using the Thesaurus app on your iPhones. That is if you didn’t just pay for someone else to write your papers for you. You just didn’t have the time or the energy for it, of course. Which is fine because you didn’t get caught and you got through. You made it to graduation.

I’m glad you made it, too. Welcome to the real world. You know, the place where bills only get larger and more numerous. The place where people wear clothes other than sweats, and kegs are for St. Bernards who live in Alaska. And it’s okay. Those things are the way they’re supposed to be now. That time in your life is over. I hope you enjoyed it because there are so many challenges ahead. No, getting that degree wasn’t the hardest thing you’ll ever do.

Your optimism is addictive, you know. I see your “awww shucks” smile and I can’t help but be happy, even if I’m not really happy. You make me feel like the world can be a nicer place, a place where negativity doesn’t have to reign supreme. At least you make me feel that way until I turn around and I glimpse reality once again. It’s not that reality can’t be great, at least when I’m not looking at the ridiculously large bill I still have to pay monthly for that education that ended in the same pomp and circumstance that yours just did, only 10 years ago.

Recent College Graduate, you make me nostalgic for a time I will never be able to get back except in memories, and we both know that memory isn’t one of my strong suits. So congratulations. Try to make this moment last a lifetime, or at least longer than 10 years. And when you look back at it, do so with pride, and with an understanding that it meant this much to you. Hopefully it still will.


300 Writing Prompts: #38

4c6cb904a2d15966297029f7e41e58dc“What are you recovering from right now?”

It was twenty years ago, and I was just testing out my sea legs, except I wasn’t on water. But you know what I mean. Any person who’s ever been 18 knows what I mean. I was an adult but I wasn’t an adult. I thought I knew what life had in store because I had always known what was going to happen. I was going to finish college with a phenomenal degree, get a phenomenal job straightaway, get married to the most phenomenal woman ever, and live the perfect life. Most 18-year-olds thinks this way, open-ended and free. But as 18-year-olds we fail to take into consideration that this world doesn’t just hand out “phenomenal.” It likes to take something from us as payment for a dream that may still never become reality. It takes our innocence.

I was confident back then, a well-read young man with well-read friends and a small penchant for the dramatic. College was free, and most things I wanted to pay for weren’t expensive either. Even if they were, I had a job for that, a job where I got to interact with people on a daily basis, one that kept me fluent in the language of youth but at the same time trained me for how to be when I really did grow up. But I wasn’t grown then, not by a long shot. I was probably the youngest 18-year-old ever, and what’s sad is that I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew was that I had a sense of freedom I had never known before, and I abused that sense of freedom as often as I possibly could.

t-shirt-about-drinkingYes, I was drunk more often than I wasn’t. I went to every party that was anywhere near, and when one wasn’t near I sketched and painted one in on the spur of the moment. People said I was the life of the party, which I figured out later meant I was a good caricature for them to point at and laugh, and I was too drunk to notice that they were laughing at me, not laughing with me. Even though I was laughing, and I kept laughing even after I got kicked out of school. They called it being put on probation, but I knew what it was. And they weren’t wrong. I had no business being in classes, not in my condition. I hated them for it then, but they did me a great service.

Before I knew it, though, I realized my life was in a holding pattern. I was as confident as ever, but it wasn’t getting me anywhere. Then the job was gone and the money started to run out. College was on hold, and I was listless. Literally without a list of anything to do or anyone to do it with. I was no longer the life of any party, and I didn’t know even how I was going to get to and from the places I wanted to go. So I took what I needed from people who didn’t deserve the way I treated them. I begged, borrowed, and stole to try and make myself feel better about myself, to make an impression on others. And the only thing I ended up doing was ostracizing those who cared about me, setting them in a corner and turning my back on them. I was completely lost.

I could have become a statistic, too, this kid who had the whole world in front of him and disdained it, who took it for granted, this Peter Pan wannabe who never found out how to grow up. It was the greatest sickness, taking youth for granted, taking people for granted, obsessed with this idea that the world somehow owed me. For what? Then it was all over, and I was all alone, and life kept moving forward while I stood still. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. It was what I had prepared for, the listless nature of my existence, the pain of self-imposed loss. And it’s 20 years later but I don’t think I’ve ever really looked in that mirror of time and examined the 18-year-old version of me, the kid who was fresh-faced and blazing with confidence. I don’t think I’ve ever really recovered from the blow I dealt myself by getting caught up with myself, by loving this idea of me that never came to fruition.

Am I in recovery? Well, I think the first step is recognizing the problem, identifying the disease, and I might be 20 years late, but better late than never.


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