Category Archives: working class

“As a child his mom worked long hours to pay the monthly bills.”

Speaking of child labor.

My student wasn’t, though; she just suffered from that old malady, Dangling Modifier.

I can’t overlook the reference to the subject’s “mom,” of course. I have had students write about “Hamlet’s dad’s ghost” and about Beowulf’s battle with “Grendel’s mom.” Students seem lately not to want to write “father” or “mother.” I used to try to joke about it, suggesting that maybe they didn’t want to write “mother” because they thought it was only half a word—but those cool days are gone, and nobody gets the joke anymore…. At least, though, my arch little joke was SOME explanation for their juvenile phrasing; now I have none. Where is the sense of tone? Where is the instinct to suit one’s diction to one’s audience and purpose? Not there, evidently. All of literature is suburbanized, if not downright infantilized, by this invasion by the diminutive into serious discourse. Of course the students can’t be blamed, when grown women introduce themselves in commercials with “I’m a Mom…” (Sometimes it sounds like “Ommamom,” which might be a mystical salutation but I don’t think so.)

Anyway, this friendly mom, when she was a child, worked long hours to pay the monthly bills. This is illegal, at least nowadays, no matter how much the family may need the money. I hope that now that she’s an all-grown-up mom she’s allowed to stay home sometimes and let others pay the bills. I just hope she doesn’t hire her own kids out to do it.

Actually, the writer means that  when the person the student is really writing about was a child, his mother worked long hours to pay the monthly bills (who paid the weekly, quarterly, and annual bills? maybe his dad?). But that’s not what the sentence says, of course. There is no noun or pronoun in this sentence who could be doing any work except that mom, and there is no one here but her who could be working as a child.

There may be certain politicians who think it’s a fine idea for children to take on actual jobs that entail long hours of work,  but most civilized people disagree with that. I trust my student would also be appalled at the thought, no matter what her sentence blithely states.

“Men used to work six days a week and sixty-hour days.”

Assuming that this statement was not intended as hyperbolic, hugely exaggerated in order to impress the reader with the endless toil that marked the factory worker’s life, I have to speculate that the missing link is “ten hours a day.” If we apply ten hours a day to six days a week, voilà (or, as they say on Design Network, “WalLAH!”), a sixty-hour…week.

So she was still thinking about those six days, and typed “days” again when she meant to type “weeks.” Simple error, easily corrected.

Except that she didn’t correct it. And so it rode in with the rest of her paper, ready for MY mind to boggle at it. I find myself thinking of Old Testament times, when men lived four or five hundred years but evidently did everything else in increments of seven or forty. Maybe the Industrial Revolution brought in the Antichrist, and life was measured in units of six. The Beast strides among us….

I should be grateful for the chance to rethink old assumptions: Jobs are hard to come by nowadays, but so is available time. When reflecting on the labor conditions of the Industrial Revolution and the harsh working conditions endured by people whose only crime was wanting to eat, I can console myself that at least those men, back in the olden days, had plenty of time.

Of course that was also before unions, child labor laws, unemployment insurance, and the minimum wage. A guy could work a sixty-hour day and still not be able to pay his rent, or buy a loaf of bread. Or cake.

“It will always be feudal to work toward a goal…”

Sometimes a word choice that is clearly wrong can unintentionally suggest a truth.

Today’s sentence came from an essay that was responding to a case study: The New York Times had run a story on a co-op farm started with permission on a state-owned tract of land by residents of the Hill neighborhood in New Haven that, after thirteen productive years, was slated for demolition to make way for a commercial complex and shopping center. Students were asked to write in favor of the farm or in favor of the development, or else suggest a compromise and write in support of that.

Perhaps the hardest argument concept for my students to grasp, for some reason, is what I call the lens, something like what the Toulmin Model refers to as the warrant, of the process—the idea that justifies linking the evidence to the thesis. But the student writing the paper from which today’s sentence was copied had a good lens: the negative lesson New Haven would be teaching the young people involved in the farm, that having a good goal, working hard on it through legitimate avenues, and achieving success means nothing because the government can wipe it all out at will or whim—and so, that there is no use in trying in the first place.

Here’s the full sentence that expressed the lesson the student said the state was teaching:

“It will always be feudal to work toward a goal because the government will eventually destroy any hard work or achievements toward that goal.”

That one wrong word choice (or hearing error, perhaps) takes the idea of democracy right out of  the equation. And maybe, although that was not the idea my student was trying to express, it’s a pretty good insight nevertheless. ARE we just peasants, toiling away on land that can never belong to us, land the Lord of the Manor can lend or take back for reasons of his own? —can, for reasons that have nothing to do with us, take away something that means much more to us than to him?

Now watching the New York City police crack down on demonstrators who are saying pretty much this same thing about Wall Street and the rich gives resonance to what my student wrote so many years ago, back in the days when we thought only inner-city people could feel they were living lives of futility…or that they were serfs in a feudal structure, pawns in some game they hadn’t chosen and couldn’t win. In this case, my student said more than she meant.