Thursday, January 3, 2013

New Year's Thoughts on Grammar, my Mother, and Real Life

I am sitting in a café in Madison, Wisconsin. The snow fell yesterday. The powdery, light kind that falls without purpose and doesn’t stick to the streets. Outside the window, the sidewalks are slushy and a faint white fuzz drapes over modules of hardened gray snow, making everything look cleaner. It’s merely cosmetic, this atmospheric landscaping -- but I am grateful.
I do not live here. But the barista (not called such in Madison) knows me. I am my mother’s daughter -- the Hollywood actress (as my mother described me) who arrives from Los Angeles in the winter and once every summer to visit and write at the table by the window. My mother used to come here every day for a skinny late. Before she broke her hip. Today, I will order her skinny late to-go before I pay my bill.
I haven’t written freely in several months. This is mostly because I began a new job, teaching sixth grade English, in September. The work has been overwhelming frankly. This has less to do with the job itself than it does with me. I am incapable of doing anything by halves. As a result, I wake up in the middle of the night, worrying about a student’s grade. Or I am in the bath and I remember a poem that I simply have to teach – one that will blow my sixth graders’ minds with its powerful dialectic on modern man’s disconnectedness from nature– oh hell, I can’t put it in to words. T.S. Eliott. You know the one. And I have to jump out of the bath to write it down to prevent it from receding from memory and leaving only a fragment that will gnaw at my consciousness until it pops back into mind, waking me – yes, that’s it “The Waste Land” – an hour before I have to get up in the morning. Jesus, I can’t teach ‘The Waste Land’ to sixth graders. What was I thinking?
It’s fucking exhausting.
The floor on my side of the bed in Los Angeles is piled high with books that are supposed to tell me how to teach. I flip through them nightly. I got into a time crunch before the winter break and didn’t get to do something clever with Santa’s “clauses”. What a missed opportunity. I really want to dig into clauses and inspire the kids to write beautiful complex sentences that rise off of the page. Hell, even if their sentences just lie there looking like whole thoughts, it will be a partial win.
I’ve come to believe that clauses are the key to making their sentences at least hover. My favorite are independent clauses -- added bits of information that could stand alone but, for reasons left to the discretion of the writer, don’t.
My mother walks tentatively now and is unlikely to brave the trip to this coffee shop until the snow thaws. Even then, she would feel more confident walking here if she could lean on my father or me.
            I had to teach myself what a prepositional phrase was this year. A friend of mine explained that prepositions are little locators. I am, for example, sitting at the table, in the coffee shop, on the street where my mother lives. I never thought much about locators before. And if I had, I doubt that I would have granted them much importance. Who cares where you are, I would have said, as long as you’re doing something.
If you don’t have a verb, you don’t have squat.
In this case, I am writing. Does it matter that I am on the street where my mother lives?
It isn’t simply teaching that has distracted me from writing the last few months. It has been the world at large. It isn’t a peaceful place. This shouldn’t be a revelation to me. After all, I’ve been living in it for decades. But before this year, I felt safe -- at my desk, in my apartment, with my family. Then Pat and I lost our health insurance, decimated our credit rating by declaring bankruptcy, and couldn’t find any employment. For three months in a row, we didn’t have enough money to pay the rent. When something like this happens, prepositional phrases become vitally important to you. Who gives a flying fuck what you are doing, if you can’t do it in your home?
Which brings me to the street where my mother lives.
When neighbors see my mother leaning on my arm as we walk out her door, they are likely to assume that it is she who is reliant upon me, who needs support, who cannot stand alone.
They would be wrong.     
When I called my mother this past summer to admit just how bad things had gotten, she said, “Just tell me what you need.” She sent money, no questions asked. And, when I could barely hold a thought in my head or get through an hour without weeping, she called me every day.
In the education books beside my bed, I have marked lessons on prepositions, clauses, conjunctions, and sentence fragments. I am falling in love with the architecture of language. I like looking at the numerous ways that one thought can build upon another. I like thinking about how an idea can link to another, although semi-colons still mystify me. Appositives, however, are a revelation. They allow a writer rename a noun. Whether for clarity or redemption, the ability to rename, to go back, to say, “what I need to you to know about this noun is this”, is mind-blowingly powerful. See here:
“Audrey lives on this street” is quite different from “Audrey, my mother, lives on this street.”
The writer, here, feels that it is important that you know that Audrey isn’t just anyone on the street. She is the writer’s mother. She is a person of importance.
 A few weeks ago, one of my sixth-grade students threw up his hands when we were analyzing a sentence and said, “I’ll never use this in my real life!”
I couldn’t, in all honesty, assure him that the ability to differentiate between a dependent clause and a sentence fragment would put him in a different income bracket or get him the girl of his dreams (the second being only slightly more possible). But I did tell him that the ability to communicate beautifully, meaningfully, and clearly would enhance his life no matter what path he chose.
He said, “What if I want to be a garbage man?”
Anyone who knows anything about sixth graders can guess that the ensuing conversation had more to do with the merits and drawbacks of employment in the sanitation industry than it had to do with grammar.
            But that night, I awoke from deep sleep, replaying the conversation.
            “I’ll never use this in my real life!”
            What the hell was I teaching these kids? Anything?
            I looked at the books on the floor and remembered my life five months earlier, prior to the phone call I made to my mother, prior to getting this job as an English teacher.
There is only one thing we ever learn and relearn in real life.
And only one thing to teach.
Everything is connected.
In real life.
Nothing, no one, stands alone.
Everything else is semantics.


  1. Glad to have you back:)

  2. That's just so lovely. Thank you for this. And yes, middle school English is exhausting, and I can go entire weeks before I realize with horror that I have not written for my self, that the words that come to me in the quiet moments have not been made tangible anywhere and are in danger of being lost. That's hard. But as I write about teaching, I don't think I could do one without the other. The halves of my life are a matched pair, thank goodness.

    Nice work.

  3. Beautifully expressed and, as always, moving. I love watching you and you family evolve. Thank you for your transparency.

  4. Please write some more. Please.