Category Archives: nostalgic

“Unfortunately she received tuberculosis.”

Bummer of a present, eh? Everybody else received toys for Christmas, but unfortunately she received tuberculosis. “Unfortunately” is right!

Whatever happened to “contracted”? Isn’t that the fancy word for “got” when it comes to diseases?

Maybe, for a person who has risky habits or hangs out in risky habitats, “developed” would work.

“Caught” would work too, of course. Tuberculosis is an infectious disease, and so one could logically catch some germs as they flew through the air.

We kids used to “come down with” things. We knew that coming down with the measles was different from coming down from school with a friend, or coming downstairs with a Teddy bear; we understood how to use this clear and functional phrase. And it had a logic to it, too. In our family a genuinely sick child got to spend the days on the livingroom couch, cuddled under a Crazy Quilt lovingly stitched by an ancient family friend named Martha (“which is your favorite patch?” could pass any amount of time), forehead regularly touched by Mommy’s cool hand, lovely little food treats periodically appearing (who else has eaten butter lumps rolled in sugar for a sore throat?). This meant, of course, coming downstairs instead of languishing remote and alone upstairs in one’s bedroom. We were sick; we “came down.”

And, in the vernacular, “got.”

Is this where my student went wrong? Did he check a thesaurus for fancy words meaning “get” and find “receive”? I suppose that’s possible, although I would have expected that he would then test it by ear: “Have I ever heard anybody use ‘receive’ in this way? Have I ever heard of anyone ‘receiving’ an illness? Well, NO! So I guess it won’t work…” But no such internal monologue seems to have occurred, and in it went.

The expression cannot, I tell myself, be part of anyone’s dialect—family or regional. Can you picture the excuse-note sent in by someone’s mother—”Anthony missed school yesterday because he unfortunately received a sore throat”—?

The only thing my student received from me was a comment that “received” was the “WW,” or “wrong word,” in this sentence, with a notation in the margin that it was not an idiomatic usage. If he paid attention to the comment, receiving it will have been fortunate.

“The majority of sources that came across my path…”

That fragment isn’t a teaser; it’s all I wrote down. I’m sure my student finished the sentence somehow—”were useful”? “were hard for me to understand”? “seemed irrelevant”? “gave the same information”?

No matter. This is yet another instance of the passive student in a world of lively inanimate objects.

Here I am, sitting in the library (perhaps, or in my bed with my laptop before me), hoping to work on a paper for which I am supposed to do research. I am sitting here, evidently, passively and hopefully.

And sure enough, along the aisles come parades of sources. Can you see them? Slim books, fat books, bound periodicals, videotapes, microfiche cards… Or, if I’m sitting at my computer, here they come like pop-up ads and streaming banners: links, excerpts, full-text articles, YouTube screens… In either case, they’re all headed for ME, traveling at right angles to my gaze, or to my assigned task.

And I just sit there. Or maybe I get up and walk a step or two—not sure if my “path” is figurative or literal.

All those sources come across my path. I seem not even to have summoned them, let alone located and seized them for my use. I reckon I’m pretty lucky—had I sat in a different section of the library, or opened my laptop at a different time, I would probably have missed the parade, since the sources weren’t actually ever coming to me: they were just coming across my path. They would have marched along to their intended destination, and I would have been luckless and sourceless. My paper might have failed to be completed! My grade might not have been able to pass!

Such writing suggests that the world of today’s student, or today’s young adult, is curiously random, a place where things happen to people rather than being the result of anyone’s actions or choices. Flotsam on the sea of life, without what we currently call “agency.”

What ever happened to that conviction of responsibility and purpose that infused us Back In The Day, when we thought we could make the world a better place just by making an impassioned effort? (And we succeeded, too, to a point…)

Those were the days when research was a pursuit—legwork as well as head-work. And damn, it was fun.


“A teacher evaluation program can get rid of the teachers who are allowed to stay because of sonority.”

Well, teacher evaluation is here revealed for its real purpose: getting rid of teachers.

My student knows which ones should go: those who are allowed to stay because they are “1. producing sound (as when struck); 2. full or loud in sound; 3. imposing or impressive in effect or style.” (Thank you, Mr. Webster, for your New Collegiate Dictionary, 1973.)

I’m not sure whether these teachers have been allowed to stay because they’re sonorous, or are being gotten rid of because they’re sonorous: the sentence isn’t fully clear on that point. And it’s an important distinction—I want to know if the next time something or someone gives me a clout on the head, I dare cry out.

Presumably she means that these teachers have previously been kept on the faculty because of their sonority. But why wouldn’t that be a good argument for keeping them into the future? After all, we need teachers who produce sound (especially if the ideas they give voice to are also sound, forgive the pun…); and if that sound is full, loud, and impressive in style, wouldn’t that make the lessons all the more memorable?

Students must not like teachers who disrupt their naps and phone calls with loud and imposing noise, because my writer is confident such teachers would get the bad end of the evaluation stick. (Perhaps they’d be struck by it, and yell “OUCH!” or “Oh NO-O-O-o-o-o-…” as they hurtled through the air and off the campus.)

Speech that’s “impressive in style” is part of a now-outmoded image of professors, gone with the showpiece lecture that even students not enrolled in the class would crowd in to hear (at my college in my day, Professor Schiffman on Moby-Dick was one such attraction), gone with the notion that the professor’s “opinion” is somehow more credible than the sophomore’s, gone with the “gentleman’s C”—well, gone with a lot of things of value and some things best gone.

So in with Evaluation, out with sonority!

Yes, I knew she meant “seniority.” Maybe Autocorrect was to blame. Or maybe she doesn’t know the difference between seniority and sonority.

I happen to think that seniority is also often a pretty damned good reason for retaining a teacher. When senior faculty go, institutional memory also goes. Most students are on campus for four or five years; nowadays, the same is true of many an administrator. Why things are as they are, how they got that way, what mistakes have already been made and don’t need repeating, what good ideas might be tried again, how the “mission” has changed: these kinds of information generally don’t wind up published for all to read, but remain instead in the consciousness of those who have had the experiences; and these kinds of information—the past—can be very important as an institution considers its present and plans its future. The value of a seasoned member of the community isn’t limited to academe; the same can be said for most enterprises.

My student probably meant “ONLY because of sonority,” only because they had been on the faculty a long time (or only because they were loud).

Perhaps she imagined that seniority can bring senility with it, and a school certainly doesn’t want a senile faculty. But I see no “only” in her sentence. Does she want teachers booted out as soon as they turn fifty? Or forty? Or when they become “senior citizens”? Hard to say. I’m not sure she knows. She certainly doesn’t say.

In fact, she doesn’t say “seniority,” either. So: teachers, keep your voices down! Try not to be too impressive! And if someone or something comes along and strikes you, don’t you make a sound. Limit your sonority and you may achieve seniority some day.


“Keeping an elected Board of Education would help felicitate…”

You know he doesn’t mean “congratulate,” right?

Here’s the whole statement:

“Keeping an elected Board of Education would help felicitate the improvements of public schools.”

Well, somebody ought to congratulate the public schools when they improve.

I’m a product of public schools. I believe in public schools. I believe that they are not only essential preparation for democracy in a diverse society, but also the actual experience of democracy in a diverse society. My public schools gave me an excellent education, but they also provided me with the opportunity to learn from fellow students whose strengths and backgrounds didn’t match mine. I learned to respect other kinds of intelligence; I learned to be curious about and to respect other cultures; I learned to appreciate the whole person, not just the part I was competing with. A prep school might have given me more constant academic rigor; but why should a kid have to endure constant academic rigor—where’s the creative space in that? A private school might have given me deep-immersion experiences with my social peers—but I was a middle-class kid, and my social peers are mostly whom I spent my time with in public school anyway. Home-schooling might have offered me the diverse and challenging world of my parents, both professionals and both very interesting people—but hey, I got that at home. I treasure my public-school education, and I believe in the idea of universal public education. I lament that politicians and deluded parents and socioeconomic inequality are wrenching it away from what it could and should be.


My student was looking at a city that wanted to experiment with an appointed Board of Education. I agree with him that letting the mayor more or less dictate the nature of public education was probably a big mistake. To me it smacks of Consultants, and I have had my fill of consultants hired to “fix” something they didn’t understand but had a product to peddle to.

So I applaud my student’s intended idea. But clearly he didn’t write what he meant. He meant, as we all can surmise, facilitate. Was it AutoCorrect or Spellcheck that insisted on a congratulatory role for Boards of Education, or was it a student who knew what he meant but didn’t know how to spell it, or didn’t actually know what the word was? If a Board of Education can’t facilitate learning, can’t facilitate growth and progress, can’t facilitate improvement, what the hell is it for? And my student is accidentally right, too: a good Board of Education, made up of caring and knowledgeable people from the community, would also be confident enough to give credit where credit was due, which means that yes, they would from time to time felicitate the educators and students for a job well done.

“I use too many contraptions in my writing.”

Be not too quick to say “typo” to this one! A typo it may be, but the typist would have had to use the ring finger of the right hand instead of the middle finger of the left hand, on the top row of keys instead of bottom, to achieve it.

Try this on instead: hearing the word “contraction” instead of seeing it in several classes, and not knowing the word “contraction”…but knowing quite well the word “contraption.” Certainly I heard the latter word far more often than the former when I was growing up: my father called some of his rigged-up problem-solvers “contraptions,” and he also used it pejoratively about other people’s rigged-up problem-solvers (“He’s using some kind of contraption to do it, but I wouldn’t trust it…”). When my sister and I and the boy next door cobbled together a little shed to use as our Clubhouse: “Well, now, that is quite a contraption!”

Contraction, a drawing-together usually by making smaller, might not leap to mind to describe the word “isn’t” or “should’ve”. Such words look just as much like rigged-up problem-solvers as they resemble something drawn together by making smaller.

I would assume that my student did mean that she uses too many contractions in her writing, because teachers routinely warn against such behavior. Even I discourage contractions in academic writing (as opposed to dialogue, where any character who doesn’t use contractions sounds like an extraterrestrial).

But I like to think about someone writing with too many contraptions. One year my sister and I got a printing contraption for Christmas: a geared dial that allowed us to choose single letters, one at a time, and press like a little hand-press to make rudimentary newspapers. VERY rudimentary. A fascinating contraption, but played with perhaps only once or twice before total frustration set in. I was proud to get a child’s typewriter but used it, too, only briefly before my father or uncle showed up with a REAL typewriter from somebody’s office. It was big, heavy, substantial, IMPORTANT. On that baby I typed many a high school English essay; the very mysterious detective novel (novella) written by me and my friend Nancy Zeiber about the Zeigartner Twins, young sleuths in the tradition of Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton, and Trixie Belden; some very evocative poems showing the strong influence of e.e. cummings (whose style also evolved with the typewriter!); and a weekly column that appeared on a page of the newspaper of a nearby city dedicated to “At My School” columns by high school reporters. I didn’t think of that typewriter as a contraption: it was the Big Time, the Real Thing. Upon going away to college I was presented with a soft-green portable Hermes typewriter, pica type, quiet, beautiful, my typewriter throughout college and grad school. With my first job came my first electric typewriter, with a “golf ball” that spun instead of arms that levered up. Now, THAT was a contraption! Its greatest grace was that one could change fonts by changing golf balls…and I changed from underlining titles to putting them in italics, a sophistication from which I have never looked back.

Follow the typewriters with some kind of clunky computer (black screen, green dashed letters, you may remember), and then my adorable first Mac (250K memory!). Floppy discs of every description.

Line up all these writing implements and only the most recent version does NOT look like some kind of contraption. The shelf in my theatre’s props room that’s dedicated to typewriters holds some that are more antique than any I ever owned, and they are contraptions indeed. Sleek, beautiful, carefully engineered little contraptions.

And this is not to mention various kinds of pens—dip, fountain, cartridge, ballpoint, felt-tip, gel—designed to put images onto paper while minimizing manual agony.

I did own some blotting paper, which I did use when I used my dip fountain pen; the wonderful brass contraption that let the user rock the blotting paper over the text was my father’s.

Then there were the various contraptions for removing images from paper: erasers of many sorts, special white-coated paper, white goo with a little brush.

My second-grade teacher had a contraption that drew four parallel chalk lines, appropriately spaced, on the blackboard for the illustration of Palmer cursive. I loved that thing. It was quite a bit like my music teacher’s five-line contraption for drawing musical staves (to receive notes, rests, clefs, sharps, flats) on the board.

I also have a contraption for drawing circles on the board: it’s a huge compass with a chalk-holder on one leg. I use it as a demonstration piece when I teach John Donne’s “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.”

And I have owned a series of lap desks too: not lap-tops, but actual desks, with compartments for paper, pens, rulers, and all the other necessary contraptions for writing.

If you sense a mounting nostalgia here, you are right. I love contraptions, and especially contraptions associated with writing or sewing. If I had a big desk in a big room, I would display some of the writing contraptions, and occasionally use them.

But of course I can see how using too many contraptions at one time would make the act of writing a pretty hopeless endeavor. Easier to become a juggler in those circumstances than a wordsmith. This is the quandary I like to imagine my student finds herself in. Please don’t disillusion me!

Please enjoy a moment of bliss as you visit Rube Goldberg, the ultimate contraption-maker, as dear to my heart as to my father’s.

“Frederick Douglass knew singlehandedly what it was like being a slave.”

My students are always deeply affected by Douglass’ Narrative of his life. To learn about “slavery” is one thing; to see it lived, through the eyes of someone who not only survived it but also fought his way through to a voice to express it, is quite another thing. Being in his agonies, his sorrows, his frustrations, his realizations, his incremental accomplishments beginning with learning to read and reaching not only freedom but also the platform to assist in freeing others, many of my students say their lives have been changed, or their understanding of life has been changed. This is what good writing can do.

I think my student’s error here was a simple retrieval problem: she meant “first-hand,” but her mental file clerk found “single-handed” instead. Obviously.

But in a sense he did know it single-handedly. He makes clear in his book that self-awareness, and particularly self-awareness for a slave, does not just happen; it is built. And Douglass built his himself: by listening to what his “masters” said among themselves, by pursuing reading once he realized that it was the key to a kind of power and liberty otherwise inaccessible, by deciding consciously what he wanted and what he was willing to risk in order to get it. His understanding of what it meant to be a slave, his awareness that what he felt was a consequence of being a slave, was knowledge and perspective that he achieved on his own. Single-handedly.

And in view of what Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass achieves, over and over, for readers—in view of the fact that before experiencing his book they think of “slavery” and “slaves” in only a generalized sense and afterward see it as a particular personal horror multiplied by millions—surely we can say Douglass did something single-handedly. We English profs wouldn’t say he “knew single-handedly” what it was like to be a slave, but single-handedly he has given millions of readers a deeper knowledge of it.

None of this is what my student meant. She just meant “first-hand.” I know this because that’s the point she went on to explain, not metaphysical musings like my own.

Still, she opened up these musings, and I’m grateful.

Frederick Douglass at mid-life

I feel personally close to Frederick Douglass because he and I have crossed paths via the places of my education. Frederick Morsell, Dickinson College class of 1962, has been doing a one-man show presenting Frederick Douglass since 1988; although we weren’t at school at the same time, Morsell and I did study with the same theater director at Dickinson, David Brubaker, and Bru talked about Fred a lot, even before Fred’s Douglass days. (Fred has also appeared at Dickinson with his show, but that alas was after my time. I hope someday to get the chance to see him.) When I went on to the University of Rochester, every time I went to the campus center I saw the magnificent bust of Douglass, the man after whom the center (the Frederick Douglass Building) had been named. In fact Rochester, New York, is a place with great resonance for Douglass: here he gave his famous “Fourth of July” speech; here he lived and eventually was buried, in the cemetery I walked past every day to get to campus. And now I teach some of his writing. Our paths have lightly crossed, and because of his works I understand some of his experience along the long and amazing actual path of his life.

“The Deceleration of Independence”

Maybe AutoCorrect is to blame, and maybe not. It can’t be a sounding-out phenomenon: who would say “deck-ell-eration”? For whatever reason, I got this from TWO students. I do decelere. (Or is it “I do decelerate”?)

Considering our more-or-less trusty spelling conventions, the “c” is usually pronounced like “s” if it’s followed by an e or i. Perhaps this “Deceleration” thing is about a child’s refusal to join the family in eating celery?

On its face, this phrase is referring to a slowing-down of independence. Reading comments on news sites and political sites and general Facebook pronouncements, I see that a lot of people do seem to have slowed down their independence in favor of parroting rumors they don’t bother to fact-check or think through for themselves. Listening to the loudest of the politicians, I gather that a lot of people (other people? same people?) want to bring social, scientific, cultural, and all other change to a screeching halt, or even turn back the hands of time (as the old rock song had it), not decelerating progress so much as longing for the 1880s. (Amazingly, just as with people who have their “past lives” read, none of them would be a peasant, a laborer, one of the vast number of the underclass; in past lives and the fantasized Gilded Age, everybody’s a Tudor or a Rockefeller…or Cleopatra.)

I once met Art Carney in an airport. He was waiting for his rental car; I was waiting for relatives to arrive on a plane. My Uncle Joe thought I was mistaken and took me across the room to share the joke with the man I “thought” was Art Carney. The joke was on Uncle Joe. Mr. Carney talked with us for a good fifteen minutes, and most of the conversation, believe it or not, was NOT about The Honeymooners, or his fame; it was about the weather, his hopes about the rental car, my school, where my relatives were from, what was fun about traveling. How likely is such a meeting today? How likely is any meeting? Perhaps the deceleration of independence is due to how much time we spend on our personal computers and other “devices,” how many movies we watch in the solitude of our own homes, how much of our shopping is done online, how few houses have front porches, how infrequently we walk anywhere, and (a natural consequence of our solitude?) how frightened we are of strangers, of one another. How much of our fear of change is rooted in our fear of the unknown; and how much larger is the “unknown” because we don’t leave home to experience it? Last Sunday I was waiting for the train to New York when a group of five teenagers or early-twentiesers came up onto the platform. They stood together in a little semicircle as they too waited for the train; but every one of them had his or her eyes on an iPhone or Android or whatever, and no one spoke. On the train there was a little conversation in the air, but what predominated was people on cellphones and children watching cartoons on their own little computers. Across from us we had mother and child: mother on phone, child on computer. When I arrive at a classroom I find silence rather than the friendly hubbub that used to spill into the hall: everyone is doing something-or-other on a personal device. At the end of class, nobody turns to anyone else to talk on the way out; everyone whips out that personal device and plunges into cyberchat or Angry Birds.

What would Walt Whitman say? Who hears America singing? Who looks at his fellows and says “I am you, my brother”?

But I was talking about the Declaration of Independence, and by association about the Constitution. Those gentleman activists of the Enlightenment had some noble ideas that they were able to elaborate into a plan of action and then into a governmental structure designed to serve a whole nation (not just themselves) and flexible enough to change as the world changed. Their ideas, and others’ articulations and interpretations of them, continue to inspire everyone who actually reads and thinks about them. They galvanized individuals committed to the common good to devote their lives to serving that common good, or lay down their lives to achieve or maintain that common good: the freedom to build their own lives in a society where all had that same freedom and where all had access to the rewards of the society they were building together; where childhood was about hope, youth was about preparation, adulthood was about achievement, and all human life was about dignity. The Constitution refers to building “a more perfect union,” implying that the work goes ever on.

Let us not decelerate our work toward independence, dignity, and the commonwealth. Declare allegiance to it (the idea, that is). If you attend a parade today, notice that the procession, and the flag, moves always forward.

“The 1800s was a time that I could not even imagine living in…”

It’s true, of course. We cannot really imagine ourselves living in just about time in the past. I remember when the “Second Woodstock,” or whatever they called it, was being planned, students of mine said they thought they would go, just to “see what it was like the first time.” They acknowledged that the weather might not be the same. I said the whole experience couldn’t be the same, because the people who were at Woodstock (I refuse to call it “the first Woodstock”) were living in the world of 1969; shaped by the events that preceded that year, they hadn’t yet had their lives and their perspectives affected by the events that followed. The people who might go to this one were shaped by those and ensuing events, and thus could never experience the innocent hopefulness and despair of 1969.

I am on a listserv for people interested in clothing history and costuming; a number of the members are reenactors, and they would be the first to say that although period-perfect clothing, a period-appropriate setting, and a well-researched knowledge of the history, culture, and social mores of the time can open a window into the lives people led then, the reenactors can never fully imagine living in that time: they know what came afterwards, and that means they can only visit—just as Barbara Ehrenreich’s courageous year of living on minimum-wage jobs could give her an understanding of that kind of life, but since she was planning afterward to return to the “normal” of the life she actually lived, she wasn’t really experiencing blue-collar poverty as her life.

Still, I knew what my student meant. Even English majors admit they cannot really imagine living in the times of the literature they study, beyond the moments of living in the text through the eyes of the writer.

But my student wanted to go farther, be more specific, just to show how completely different from his own experience life in the 1800s clearly was. And so he went on:

“The 1800s was a time that I could not even imagine living in, a time when things were more personal, when instead of sending an email or a text you had to go see someone face to face.”

I hope that he was only commenting on the speed of communication. But he seems to be implying that seeing someone “face to face” is in and of itself a chore, an unimaginable burden, something to be avoided at all costs (“had to go”). And beyond that is a vision of his present that saddens me enormously.

We’ve all seen people sitting together in a restaurant but talking (or texting) separately to different companions via cellphone. Arriving in class I used to be greeted by a buzz of conversation, students comparing homework or plans or complaints or gossip; now I arrive to silent classrooms, all heads bent, fingers madly texting to other people—roommates, friends from high school, parents. And students used to leave a classroom talking with one another, sometimes even about something that had been discussed in class, or to linger to talk with the professor. Now I conclude my closing cadence and all rise, whipping phones up to ears to resume their conversations with other people. I have actually overheard such vital pieces of information as “Yeah, class is over. I’m leaving the room now.”

Out in what used to be the public sphere people walk, heads bent so they can text, or stride along talking full-voice to thin air (I occasionally think I’m being approached by an emotionally disturbed person, until I spot the head-mounted receiver). I go to the movies and sit with the few other people who venture out of their own homes to see films on large screens instead of on their televisions, computers, or cellphones. The aisles at Trader Joe’s still seem crowded, but it’s true that I also see  PeaPod trucks in my neighborhood. With the price of gas one might expect fewer cars on the road as people turned more enthusiastically to public transportation or car-pooling, but I see just as many one-person-one-car voyagers in the traffic jams. No wonder the public discourse—especially the “comments” world of the Internets—is revealing such agoraphobia, or perhaps more accurately otherphobia: we are increasingly distrustful of our fellows, increasingly uncomfortable with “strangers”—increasingly willing to think the worst of them, to hate them. We seem, like my student, to find it hard to imagine seeing someone face to face—a way of life that he clearly characterizes as “more personal.” That’s some realization: that the more “individual” we become, and the more “connected,” the less personal life is!

I’ve been more and more horrified by the policies and practices of the political party whose intention seems to be to take the country back to the Gilded Age, the good old days of 1880 and thereabouts. But the 1800s did get a few things right. One of them seems to be being “personal.” Most of the 1900s had that too, despite the spread of that late-1800s invention, the telephone.

I am resolved today to “go see someone face to face.” Perhaps I’ll do it every day. If you do it too, people might think it’s a new form of the Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement. And maybe it is.

“Problems often arise between siblings when there are two or more children in the same family.”

I have to wonder whether this sentence isn’t the result of a good impulse: verifying the definition of a term one is accustomed to using but suddenly not positive of. Doesn’t “two or more children in the same family” feel like part of a dictionary definition of “sibling”?

If that’s the case, then here’s an example of a good action with a bad result—or at least an unintentionally funny result.

“When there are two or more children in the same family” is a nice adverb clause; as such, it modifies the verb in the main clause, “arise.”

My student would have done fine with the sentence “Problems often arise when there are two or more children in the same family.” Or with “Problems often arise between siblings,” which I would speculate was the sentence he wrote in the first place, before his vocabulary qualms or his fear that the sentence sounded too simple for college writing.

That last, by the way, is the source of probably 60% of what’s bad in college students’ writing—the desire to sound grown-up and intellectual. I understand, have felt, and appreciate this desire. We urge our writing students to “find your voice!” and so they look for it…in the persons they imagine they will become, rather than in the persons they are. But just as I once imagined I could pass my driver’s test with next to no preparation if I just imagined myself driving and then followed my imagination (a notion I fortunately disabused myself of before actually going to DMV and wreaking havoc), the imagination has better uses than helping fools rush in. To me, late at night propping my head up with my left hand and and plying a red pen with my right, a parade of self-defining sentences, misapplied vocabulary, inflated diction, and mangled syntax—yet another student reaching for an imagined “intellectual” tone—is every bit as awful as a three-car pileup, albeit at the same time a lot funnier.

Because there’s been a lot of scholarship on the damage inflicted on students by correcting in red, let me hasten here (as I do in class) to say that I ply a red pen on papers at the school whose colors are red and white, and a blue pen at the school whose colors are blue and white. Long ago I taught at a school whose colors were purple and white, and I used purple ink. I don’t know what I’d do at a blue-and-gold or black-and-red school; I haven’t come to that crossroads yet and prefer not to imagine myself into it!

So, back to the siblings. If we substitute the noun in question for the quasi-definition, the sentence reads “Problems often arise between siblings when there are siblings.” A self-defining, or at least circular, sentence. Shall we “fix” the sentence by striking out the adverb clause and move on, or shall we admit that perhaps unbeknownst to the student the sentence seems to be uttering a Truth?

One of my earliest posts in this blog included a statement that had the same ring of deep truth: “In Adam and Eve this is the first time man and woman have been together and right away there is trouble.” Here is a real philosopher speaking. And in the Sibling sentence, I imagine I see the same kind of resigned recognition of the human condition: The minute Kid #2 arrives, right away there is trouble. I don’t really think this is what my student meant to say, but I like to imagine that’s what he meant.

Thinking of my own two dearly beloved siblings, I can reassure my writer that a lot of those problems disappear when the children cease to be children and realize that one and all they are people. At least that’s the case in a lot of families: sibling rivalry is a lot of little piggies crying “Me Me Me.” Eventually when, no longer little piggies, we cry “We We We,” it’s a gladsome cry.

We We We! (image by gustavorezende, on

“She is described as quietly standing in the door way, thus appearing as a statute…”

I have a feeling this student was trying to write about Mangan’s sister, the object of her young brother’s friend’s crush in James Joyce’s “Araby.”

When I teach “Araby,” I like to ask my students to identify all the words and images in the story that have, or could have, religious connotations. It’s a great way into understanding the way Joyce creates the urgency, depth, and complexity of the first stirrings of attraction and romance. I cherish the memories of my adolescent crushes, and I think a lot about the components of those passions and the ways in which such attachments mediate between childhood and adulthood. Joyce’s mature narrator is looking back at such an experience in his own life with pity and amusement—and tender admiration too, I think: love exalts the boy in the story; his crashing disillusionment at the end can’t be understood unless the reader can appreciate the exaltation (the narrator calls it “confused adoration”) that precedes it.

In class we take a look at these religious images (most of which I have to point out and, quite frequently, explain, heigh-ho), and I always suggest that the narrator’s description of the light falling on Mangan’s sister as she stands in the doorway of her house is suggestive of light falling on a statue of Mary in a church niche, even though in Joyce’s story the light picks out details that imply sexuality (her hair, the hem of her petticoat, for example):

…She was waiting for us, her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door. …and I stood by the railings looking at her. Her dress swung as she moved her body, and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.

And later, on the same stoop on another evening,

…She …bow[ed] her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.

And my student here seems to have been trying to write about that. But he takes it in entirely the wrong direction. Here’s his sentence:

“She is described as quietly standing in the door way, thus appearing as a statute, something that is cold and hard and does not change.”

For a moment let’s pretend he wrote “statue,” which is obviously what he meant. The equation of girl with statue is accomplished much too quickly: just a “thus” and the process is evidently complete. Teacher immediately suspects that student didn’t really follow the discussion and therefore can’t explain the point beyond stating it, thus the “thus.” And what follows bears out that suspicion, I’m afraid. He didn’t catch the idea that describing a girl as if she were a holy statue in a Catholic church sanctifies her attraction and mystery; he thinks “statue” and gets “stone,” despite the narrator’s characterization of her hair as a “soft rope.” “Cold and hard” would never enter the mind of Joyce’s narrator here: the boy is fascinated and silently adoring. It’s true that Mangan’s sister “does not change” in the story: she remains her sweet self, oblivious of the boy’s worship even when he offers, in what he hopes seems a mature and casual way, to buy her something at the bazaar called Araby that’s being held while she’s away on a religious retreat with her school. After all, the story isn’t about Mangan’s sister, but about the boy’s romantic dreams of Mangan’s sister. The fact that she does not change, then, is not a fault; it is a fact of life, as all of us who have had and survived crushes can attest, alas.

Reading the student’s intended sentence, then, is depressing for the person who tried so hard to get him to read the story with his whole self. But my Book of Horrors isn’t full of depressing misinterpretations; I put things in that book that, horror or not, make me laugh.

And I did laugh at the “statute” error, which was probably an uncorrected typo rather than a mistaken word choice. I laughed because the definition that follows the word is certainly one way to view the law. Certainly laws are cold, in that they define and describe acts held to be criminal without regard to the individual human stories that might prompt commission of those acts. They are hard in a similar way, unyielding to attempts to color or blur their definitions and thus weaken their sway. And although laws can be changed, they do not change of their own volition, and making changes to them takes sustained and vigorous effort. Justice, I believe, involves factoring human realities into the legal equation; but my student has offered a legitimate definition of a statute in his sentence—even though he had intended to discuss love, not law.

Finally, Bob Dylan sneaks into my thoughts: “Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall.” As my student accurately (!) observes, Mangan’s sister stands quietly in the doorway, not stubbornly or implacably or defiantly or obstructively. Putting myself in the narrator’s place and looking up at her, I see promise, benevolence, beauty, sanctified presence. But my reader sees something cold and hard and unchanging, and if that’s what she is, then she’s got to be blocking the (half-open) door, shutting the narrator out, shutting the reader out. Where is the story, then? Where is the wonder?

Reading isn’t just being able to “decode” the words. The sentence my student wrote betrays not just a failure of proof-reading, but a failure of reading itself.

I probably shouldn’t have even tried to talk about the ways in which an image pattern can enrich a literary work. Imagery of religion seems particularly opaque to them, even at the Catholic-related university that is one of the places I currently teach. None of the students who read the sentence “I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes” even noticed the word “chalice,” so beautifully chosen, evoking not only communion but also the Holy Grail and the knights who sought it. The name of the bazaar, “Araby,” makes the boy a crusader on a holy quest (and, for the reader, Valentino in The Sheik of Araby, and the popular song “I am the sheik of Araby, Your love belongs to me…,” both of which appeared some years after Joyce wrote the story but both of which also complement the images in the story. Actually my mother used occasionally to sing that song, even though she was just a kid when it was popular). That the boy’s uncle drunkenly recites “The Arab’s Farewell to His Steed” emphasizes the exotic romance of the word.

What makes me really sad is that I did recognize the pattern of religious allusions when I read this story for the first time as a freshman in college. I hope popular culture has given my students some new rich trove to replace what has evidently been lost. But what has been lost provided a link between reader and writer that can’t be supplied by newer references, and that means that the readers are steadily losing the means to enjoy the wonderful works of writers dead and gone—and with that, I fear, the understanding of the worlds that words can evoke.

Anyway, clicking on my first mention of “Araby” will take you to the full text of the story. Read it for yourself, or re-read it if you’ve already read it. Read it once for the story; read it a second time for the resonances. Daydream about your own first “love.” Offer up a little tear at the boy’s moment of disillusionment. Try not to think of statutes.