Monday, April 27, 2015

Climb Inside

We had each of us some whimsy in the brain, 
which we believed more than anything else, 
and which discolored all experience to its own shade.

-Robert Lewis Stevenson 

Good morning.  

After pouring my heart out to you last week about a handful of the eloquent speeches my students delivered, today I'd like to whine about grading speeches.  I am in the thick of the semester's end grading slog & it's not doing a lot for my mood.  Throw in the recent weather (for those who aren't local: a scary, destructive thunderstorm a day that threatens the loss of electricity, & humidity hovering around 150%) & my bank's maddening check reordering process, & you've a fairly complete picture of my threshold for nonsense as we near the end of April.

On the up side, the humidity is so, so good for my dry skin, & I have grades on approximately half the speeches.  Roughly half the speeches I hear in a round of speeches are easy to grade, which means I make a few notes on the student's outline & give them the A they clearly earned, or I write them a novel about their many shortcomings & give them the F they deserve.  The remaining speeches are the ones that haunt me.

I try to make the speech grading process as objective as possible, but who am I kidding?  It is highly subjective, particularly the persuasive speeches that deal with one of the three big issues about which many of my young speech students are eager to speak: gay marriage, abortion, &, added to the list more recently, the legalization of marijuana.  Do I desperately want to give an A to the student who chose to speak about her opposition to abortion despite the underdevelopment of her argument?  Of course I do.  Do I begrudgingly write A on the outline of the student who met every technical requirement & spoke eloquently about the reasons she believes abortion should remain a legal option for pregnant women?  You know I do.  Mercifully, I am not often presented with the latter situation.  In ten years of teaching public speaking, I've heard countless persuasive speeches on the topic of abortion, & I'd say ninety percent of them have been given by young women staunchly opposed to the procedure.

At present, I am seated at my desk, typing this blog (aided by the soft glow of my wonderful new lamp) instead of responsibly confronting the stack of ungraded speeches obscuring the left corner of my desk.  In addition to opting to write a blog in lieu of grading, the ungraded speeches remain in grade limbo because I've neglected them for Mr. Atticus Finch, who is, in my opinion, a worthy reason to ignore your kids work you're paid to do so you can be completely prepared to supply meaningful commentary during the monthly book club gathering.

A month or so ago, I publicly admitted I'd never read To Kill a Mockingbird.  I am happy to report that situation has been rectified.  When I take to my blog & make embarrassing confessions, the book club listens, & thus To Kill a Mockingbird was declared the book of the month for April.  The book club met last Thursday night to discuss Ms. Lee's novel, & there is so much about the book I am still processing, at least that's what I tell myself when I again walk by the ungraded speeches that I really absolutely have to put final grades on at some point this week.  This blog is brought to you by my abiding need to make peace with Harper Lee's work in that special, verbose way of mine you've come to love, after which I'll have the mental energy I need to finally pick up the red pen & do what has to be done to prevent my receiving a plethora of emails from various important people at school who're super anal about instructors turning in final grades.  They're all, Deadline this, & deadline that . . .

There's a long list of things I love about To Kill a Mockingbird.  I love the exploration of small town life, & I love the well-developed cast of characters.  I have a newfound, but deep love for Atticus Finch that I suspect will further flourish when, at some point, I watch Gregory Peck in the film adaption.  I love that a lawyer is the story's hero; he's the moral compass not only in his tight-knit family, but in the town of Maycomb.  I love Ms. Lee's choice of a young, naive narrator, who, along with her brother, Jem, grows up considerably in the years the novel spans.  I love the many moments when Scout realizes how wise her father is, & how courageous he is.  I think what I love most is the novel's exploration of the pitfalls of operating under preconceived notions.  I truly love the way Atticus allows his children to discover their own erroneous assumptions in due time, for themselves.

It seems no one in Maycomb is unencumbered by the weight of stereotypes but Atticus.  Beneath the town's tranquil surface lies a ridiculously nonsensical social hierarchy about which Scout (& the reader) learns from snippets of conversations between various of the town's busybodies, & of course from conversations with Atticus.  People's words & actions often matter very little, while their skin color & the amount of money in their bank account matter considerably.  Tom Robinson is black, so it's irrelevant that ample evidence is presented in court that he is innocent of raping Mayella Ewell.  Mayella Ewell is white, so it's not possible the poor, neglected, lonely girl would turn to a colored man for comfort, for warmth, & that he, a married man, would flee her advances (my one gripe about Atticus is that he didn't find a way to work the story of Joseph & Potiphar's wife into the trial . . . I mean it's right there!).  Bob Ewell is white, & so the painfully obvious fact that he beat his own child is ignored in favor of a story everyone knows is a lie, & her bruises are blamed on the young black man who'd repeatedly done nothing but help the motherless, destitute Mayella when he was asked.

Of all the erroneous conjecturing going on in Maycomb, I think my favorite misguided notions are those the children have about Boo Radley, the recluse who is assumed to still be living because the children haven't seen his corpse removed from the rickety old house in which he spends all his time.  Let me pause & tip my hat to Ms. Lee for the names Boo Radley & Atticus Finch, which have soared to the top of my Best Character Names Ever list alongside Dicken's Miss Havisham (Great Expectations), Effie Trinket & Caesar Flickerman of Hunger Games fame, & Hester Prynne & Arthur Dimmesdale, both stars of Hawthorne's The Scarlett Letter.

When the novel opens, Scout & Jem, prodded by their young friend Dill, spend copious amounts of time fretting & speculating over the Radley house & its infamous occupant.  Boo Radley, whom Scout describes as a "malevolent phantom," consumes their thoughts during the summer the novel opens, presumed to be the summer of 1933.  Jem earns temporary fame by darting across the lawn & actually touching the exterior of the Radley house.  The children are oblivious to the storm brewing in their sleepy town, & the considerable weight on their father's shoulders, while they immerse themselves in the Radley house drama.

As the novel unfolds, the action shifts from child's play in the streets outside the Finch & Radley homes to the inside of the Maycomb courthouse.  With the move from the children's fascination with Boo Radley to the sobering trial of Tom Robinson, the reader sees that everywhere in Maycomb, misguided prejudice reigns supreme.  

There are some gut-wrenching, low moments in the novel, but, like Atticus, the story is brimming with wisdom.  Scout learns that our fears are often misguided, & thus we waste considerable time slaying imaginary dragons.  People are often not what they seem; the children learn this lesson from their interactions with Boo, but also from the brief time they spend with old Mrs. DuBose, an elderly woman who vows to kick her addiction to morphine before her death, which occurs about midway through the book.  It's only after her death that the children learn she was not simply a mean-spirited old lady who yelled from her porch; she was a dying woman hell bent on dying free of her addiction.  Atticus has effusive words of praise for Mrs. DuBose.  Her story reminds me of the James Joyce quote, "Your battles inspired me - not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead."

Scout learns that, like her father, Boo sees the world with clear eyes.  Atticus exemplifies courage by taking Tom Robinson's case, knowing full well, as he explains to Scout, "you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and see it through to the end."  Boo, knowing what Atticus does about the sad realities of life in Maycomb, retreats to the quiet safety of his home for years & years, confounding the neighborhood children to whom he becomes the source of all that is frightening & evil (question to ponder: Boo Radley: a precursor to Emmanuel Goldstein?).  After witnessing their father's heroics & the miscarriage of justice for Tom Robinson in the courtroom, which brings Jem to tears, Jem, the elder of the Finch children, tells Scout that he's, "beginning to understand something.  I think I'm beginning to understand why Boo Radley's stayed shut up in the house all this time . . . it's because he wants to stay inside."  Soon after Jem's realization, Scout & Jem are (literally) hit upside the head by an enraged Bob Ewell, & they learn their malevolent phantom, is, like Atticus, a kindhearted person interested in justice.    

I've taught a few Boo Radleys, students who sit in the back & say nothing during class discussions even though I know, based on conversing with them outside class & from grading their work, they are listening, & they are sharp as tacks.  Give me a few years & there's a good chance I'll be married to a Boo Radley, & there'll be a couple of kids up our street who correctly surmise that Old Mr. Zeigler stays in his house all the time because he wants to stay in his house all the time.

I've also taught a few Mrs. DuBoses, students who outwardly manifest their inward struggles in negative, sometimes destructive ways that can push an underpaid adjunct instructor to the brink.  When I deal with students, there's this constant hum in the back of my mind, niggling me, forcing me to reign myself in in situations that draw my ire.  Many of the students I teach are fighting battles that are unimaginable to me, a fact that will now, having finally read To Kill a Mockingbird, forevermore bring to mind Atticus's advice to Scout that, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

So you see now why it's so difficult to put a final grade on a speech.  There's considerably more to the equation than simple procrastination coupled with my desire to read my book club book & watch the Gilmore girls, which, by the way, I quit cold turkey so I could read To Kill a Mockingbird.  Like Mrs. DuBose, I too can muster some serious self-discipline when I am so inclined.  When you take into account the controversial topics on which students often choose to speak (topics about which I have strong opinions), & compound that with my personal feelings about students, you understand why I have to so stringently guard myself against handing out a sympathy grade or, on the flip side, assigning a student a low grade for all the wrong reasons.  Yes, sometimes I overthink things, & maybe I agonize a little too much over some of these speech grades, but I've always felt that teaching at the collegiate level comes with tremendous freedom, & thus tremendous responsibility.    

I'd like to close with two apologies.  First, I've come to the end & realize I took few pictures this last week, so I apologize to those of you who're not so keen on all the words.

I did take this one of Reagan Saturday morning:

I had an appointment to get my hair trimmed & highlighted Saturday morning, & Reagan joined me, which she insisted on once she learned I was going to Target after the haircut.    

Summer is almost upon us.  A beach trip is in the works, I have seasons six & seven of Gilmore girls to watch so I'll know how it all ends, & I have a reading commitment of epic proportions looming (about which we'll chat more later), & so I vow posts filled with pictures of the kids & few words are forthcoming.  I promise I won't make you think much this summer.

Finally, I feel I owe the book club ladies an apology.  I finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird late last Wednesday night, & so when we all met Thursday, I didn't have much to say about the book (yet) because I hadn't had time to fully process it.  So, ladies, if I disappointed you Thursday night & you're reading now, I hope this effort has at least somewhat made up for my lackluster showing at last week's book club.  May it never be said that I halfheartedly approach my duties, be it as an adjunct instructor who agonizes over grading speeches her students put together at the last minute, or a mom who chooses reading over sleeping so she can mightily contribute to her book club's discourse.

And really, the reading I do & the writing I do is all essentially in pursuit of Atticus's invitation to climb inside.  I read to slip into the narrator's world (& admittedly to leave mine, temporarily), to return to the innocence of childhood, in the case of Harper Lee's Scout.  Readers are empathizers; the studies prove it.

I write for a handful of reasons, but the image that nudges me to sit down & start typing even when I *think* I have nothing to say is an image of my kids reading my thoughts in fifteen or twenty years, of them getting to know a younger version of the shrew who demands they're home by curfew.  The writer, any writer, invites the reader to climb inside; it's an act of vulnerability, but also of immortality.  That's the best way I know to describe the feeling of sorting through your thoughts & splaying them in black & white for others to peruse: you feel simultaneously vulnerable & empowered.  So you all knock yourselves out; I love that you read, but please don't take offense to my saying that my target audience is a very small, very elite blue-eyed group that, at present, has not a reader in the bunch.


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