By Ross Howell
Ross followed a career in academic fundraising, public relations, book publishing, and marketing after receiving his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He’s now freelancing non-fiction and fiction, and teaching at Elon University. He lives in Greensboro, NC, with his wife, Mary Leigh, English cocker spaniel diva, Pinot, and rescued pit bull Lab mix Sam.
Reading class exercises from my freshman writing sections at Elon University, I came across these sentences:
“This catastrophic storm created kayos throughout the east coast and millions were affected.”
“I believe a lot of people take for granite all the things their houses provide for them.”
I returned the papers to their folders and headed off to my next class. While I thought students had done a reasonably good job in a group essay explaining Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism,” they hadn’t, in my opinion, challenged themselves sufficiently in defining terms.
Subjectivity. Anguish. Forlornness. Despair. In discussion, I wanted them to think of real-life examples.
“I hate Existentialism,” a student said. “It’s so depressing. One of my teachers made us study it for a whole term. I’d wear earmuffs in class just to annoy him.”
Then came an insurrection regarding the next paper assignment.
“I can’t think of a topic,” a student said. “Can’t you just tell us what you want us to write about?” Heads nodded assent.
I started to answer that they had been, as Sartre wrote, “condemned to freedom,” but thought better of it.
“I’m sure you’ll think of something that interests you,” I mumbled. “Just remember the ‘getting started’ techniques we’ve discussed.”
Could a life wordsmithing be rewarded with mere insouciance? The despair we writing teachers reserve just for ourselves overwhelmed me. Those feckless children! This uncaring universe!
How maudlin. I decided to take a walk.
The cold air was bracing. I was reminded of walks from my Inman Square apartment along the fens by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to the campus of Simmons College. My first college teaching job. It was a part-time appointment as an instructor of remedial English for international students and those “at risk” in their transition to college writing.
I was working on a collection of short stories at the time, long before I embarked on a career in fundraising, communications, and book publishing.
I couldn’t grade a paper for the remedial class without a dictionary at hand; the students’ variant spellings were so prolific and convincing I couldn’t remember how to spell the simplest of words. I reflected on life here at Elon. While I’m much older, it seemed the battle hadn’t changed much.
I envisioned myself a wizened warrior, prowling the ramparts while Dame English napped above in her white-turreted bower. Howling below were young barbarians intent on harming her, eyes glistening in the lurid light of hand-held devices, flames leaping from fires built outside the castle walls, fires surely fueled by adverbs, the part of speech they employed with such abandon in paper upon paper.
A big acorn whizzed by my head and landed with a “thunk” on the brick pavers. My reverie was broken.
It was true. The students at Simmons had inflicted grievous and manifold injuries on Dame English. But I couldn’t think of a single one who had done so with malicious intent. I couldn’t think of one at Elon, either.
They were, and are, just learning.
About what youthful linguistic humiliations have you lived to tell?