Monday, May 21, 2012

A Justification Of English Majors Who Don't Want To Be English Teachers

A few days ago I was checking out with my bounty of fruits and vegetables at the Market Fresh United Supermarket (the only place here to get really consistently yummy produce) and the cashier girl, after complimenting me on my sundress, asked me pleasantly what I was doing for the summer.

"School," I said, with the half-laugh. I am not used to being Grown Up. At the same time, it is extremely Grown Up not to have a summer vacation.

"What's your major?" she asked.

Rejoicing that at least she didn't think I was in high school doing remedial classes, I replied, "English," and she asked enthusiastically, "What grade do you want to teach?"

I felt my pleasant-making-small-talk-with-strangers politeness floating away like bubbles on a breeze. "I don't want to teach," I mumbled.

"Oh! I thought when you said English, you'd want to teach," she said breezily.

"No," I said, trying not to sound too brusque, and paid for my zucchini, and left.

Later at home I raved to the Pilot, as I am wont to do when I encounter yet another person who believes that apparently the only reason for the existence of English majors is so they can teach English in school, thereby creating a continuum of English majors who become English teachers injecting Englishy information into hapless elementary and high school students that has no reality or use outside the classroom.

What's an English major to do?

If people ever follow up my negative to their first inquiry about teaching with a "well, what do you want to do?" I always say, "I want to write." And then they say, "Like what?" and I say, "I'm really interested in creative nonfiction," at which point I usually get a blank stare and the conversation shifts.

After all, of what practical use is a lyric essay? Or a writing collage? Or a braided memoir?

But then, what practical use is any but the most technical of writing? Who really "needs" a novel? Or a poem? And then it's a rather swift slide into dismissal of the rest of the arts... because really, what's the practical, utilitarian use of a painting? Or sculpture? Or a play? Or music?

I just googled Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and at the very top tier, the "self-actualization" triangle at the top, mashed up with spontenaity, and morality, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts, is the little bone thrown to English majors– creativity. I must be extremely self-actualized.

But isn't creativity everywhere? Is it really only limited to a few impressive self-actualized individuals?

My laptop sits on a desk– a gift from my parents-in-law– that is satin soft and cherry-colored, with shiny little handles and handle-plates on the three drawers. The legs have a slight, rounded curve as the bottoms curl up like paws on the ground. Someone had to design it, someone had to build it. It could have been ugly, but whoever made it took the time to make it beautiful.

In the daily pressures and stresses, creativity can be a song that helps to make life beautiful. You can live a perfectly useful life without ever having read– or written– a lyric essay. But I am an English major because I have a deep need– sometimes it even feels like a compulsion– to take an image, or a moment, or a story, and change it into twenty six letters of the alphabet on the page, and sometimes the form those letters take is a lyric essay.

Other people translate life into music or painting: I try to translate it into words. And that is why I am an English major, because by surrounding myself with authors and teachers and other students who are all doing or trying to do the same thing, I hope to learn to do it better. I am an English major because I believe that we are all living stories that intersect each other in mysterious ways, and by learning more about Story I learn more about Life. I am an English major because I am in love with words and the power and the beauty that they possess. I am an English major because I believe that we all speak multiple languages in our hearts and minds and mouths, and I like trying to untwist them. I am an English major because I believe that good writing makes life richer and more meaningful, the way spices make a soup more savory.

"Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art..." wrote C.S. Lewis, "it has no survival value; rather, it is one of those things which gives value to survival." He threw "art" in there for a good reason, I think; maybe in 1960 people didn't see the use of artists, including writers. For English is an art, the art of words, and what they mean, and how they can mean it, from the briefest nine-word poem to the greatest epic.

But what can you do with an English degree if you don't teach? is the question.

Revel! Revel in the words and the works. Revel in the scribbling. Revel in the questions and doubts and anxieties. Revel in the stacks of books on your nightstand and your coffee table and your floor. Revel in the way the sentences twist and squirm and finally flow out of your fingers. Revel in the thing that helps make your life– my life– beautiful... and maybe someday it will help to make someone else's life beautiful too.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mother Words

You taught me how to read.

There are a million gifts that you gave me, being my mother, and yet when I saw a post on Facebook that prompted me to think of all the ways you've blessed me, that was the first that sprang to mind. 

A month ago, in class, one of the students led a Feminist Studies exercise and we were supposed to write down a woman whom we admired, and why we admired her. 

I wrote down you. 

And somehow, in some way, that was linked to you teaching me how to read, because you taught me how to read when it was supposed to be strangers, kindergarten or first-grade teachers, doing that, and instead it was you. The same way that it was you who taught Emily, and Eric, and Maggie, and Jeremy. 

I admire my mother, I wrote, because in a time when women were expected to put their children in day-care and go back to work, my mom chose to stay at home and raise her kids, and homeschool them before homeschooling was popular or even considered normal or valid. 

So the gifts, my mother, that you gave me, that all began with you teaching me how to read:

Storybooks before bedtime. (M. and J. and I scuffle to be the one who gets to "sit side Mommy!")
Making us read aloud. (Remember the Betsy and Eddie books, and you reading one page out loud and then me reading the other?)
Hours and hours at the library. (I stuffed my backpack so full of books I could scarcely drag it out to the van.)
History books that made history come alive with real people and stories, instead of reducing it to dates and dry facts. (The more people I meet who say they "hate history", the more I realize the time and effort and love it took for you to research and read so many books, so that your children would love history.)
Story-Bible reading every day with school. (Helping us understand... pointing us quietly to the God-love.)
Chapter books before bed as we got older. (Remember "By The Great Horn Spoon"? And "The Bronze Bow"? And all the Bonnie books?)
Books for our birthdays, under the Christmas tree, in our Easter baskets. (I think that if you'd had the budget for it you would have given us books at the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving too.)

And then, in all those words, came my own words... and I came to you, asking for another notebook, and you didn't intrude, you just let me scribble... and scribble... and scribble. Eighteen notebooks full. And then the computer files. (Thank you for forcing me to learn to type, much as I bucked and protested!) The fights with M. and J. because I was taking up too much computer time, writing. Remember the monthly journal entries, you teaching us editing and revising? And Mr. Pudewa and learning outlines (I kicked against those, too, but he was so funny I was won over). And Denise and the creative writing class at the library. Then my own journals, and the novel, and the short stories, and you watched, you never intruded, but you encouraged when I asked you for it, and you helped my love-affair with writing progress.

The love that wouldn't have begun if not for you. 

Everyone always asks me if I want to teach, since I'm an English major (the common belief being, apparently, that English majors only exist to teach English in schools and have no other practical use), and I always say no... no. Because they mean teach English in schools.

But perhaps I should start saying yes. 

Yes, I do. I want to teach my children how to read. Just like my mom taught me.

Thank you, Mom. Thank you for that gift. 

Happy Mother's Day!

Friday, May 4, 2012

In Praise of Children's Books

The Children's Literature class started on Tuesday!

Yesterday, shimmering through 97 degrees, I shouldered my book bag into the library and started ransacking the children's section. Old friends blinked up at me from long-ago bedtime readings, now mysteriously transported to a new library and my adult life.

Mr. Putter And Tabby Bake The CakeAmelia Bedelia. Nate the Great. Under the Lilacs.

And a few more that I had to surrender at the front desk, because I didn't know about a 15-book limit per card. "I use my husband's card," the librarian told me helpfully, and I agreed that certainly, this would be the best option.

The Pilot read to me Nate the Great last night while I cooked dinner.

A first assignment for the class: write an imaginary speech to a PTA audience, convincing them that reading to children is important.

It's rather tempting just to write four quotes.

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales. - Albert Einstein.

Fairy tales do not tell children dragons exist. Children already know dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. - G. K. Chesterton

No book is worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty... - C. S. Lewis

... a children's story which is only enjoyed by children is a bad children's story. - C.S. Lewis

I won't, of course. I'm obliged to put in some textbook jargon about children's cognitive and social development that is enhanced by reading, all just scientific blather that is much more neatly and meaningfully summed up by Messrs. Einstein, Chesterton, and Lewis.

The love I have for children's books is an old, comfortable, time-worn affection. Picking up a children's story and sprawling comfortably on the couch to read it is as enjoyable as eating a favorite meal; meeting the characters to re-live their stories is like reminiscing about old times with friends.
The banter between my brothers and sisters and me is littered with quotes from the stories that wove into our childhoods. Fruitcake is always going to "break a person's toe" (see Mr. Putter and Tabby.) The stories are a dialect of the language that we speak.

If you didn't grow up reading children's books, then don't lose any more time! Start making friends with  Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy immediately. Or Henry Huggins. Or Beezus and Ramona. Or Bilbo Baggins. Or whomever you really want to get to know!

For me the summer promises lots of hot weather, and lots of old friends. Perhaps you might like to join me?