Friday, June 14, 2013
Don't Tell Them, But My Students Were Right
Last weekend, my sister Patti and I drove St. Patsy to Gettysburg so that she could spend a month with her remaining sister and my favourite aunt, Shirley. She and her husband (my Uncle Dick) are former English teachers and avid history buffs, as is my sister. So...I was pretty much in heaven. We crammed as much Gettysburg Battle Lore into 36 hours as was humanly possible, leaving time for family stuff as well.
One evening, after a narrated tour of the Battlefield and a long-awaited, up-close viewing of the life-size bronze monument of General Longstreet, we drove to my cousin's home for a cookout. (No, I did not eat outdoors. Don't be ridiculous. And my cousin did a very sensible thing that I must mention: he had a large oscillating fan out on his deck. Not only did it provide cool air from the woods behind, but it kept bugs away. Marvelously smart, that.) As we sat around talking, I was immediately reminded of something my students used to tease me about.
You see, throughout my teaching career, my students used to swear that, because I was so enraptured with literature and constantly stringent with grammar and spelling, my idea of fun would be to sit around and talk about books and pick apart sentences and grammatical errors. To discuss symbolism in film and literature; to argue whether a character's dialogue was true; to discover themes in what we've read and seen. I used to fix them with an icy stare and simply move on.
At the big family table, my sister, my aunt, my cousin Mark (a former radio personality, writer, and journalist), and I immediately started talking about books. There is a new Lincoln book out, and Aunt Shirley wants me to read it. I want her to go and see the new Gatsby film. Patti had read a critical analysis of Gatsby and was rereading the book before she saw the film. And then we were off. Pretty soon, we went from there to everyday errors that irritate us: further vs. farther, irregardless (aargh!), it's vs. its, and so many more. It was absolutely wonderful. My students, of course, were right. There is nothing I love talking about more than books and The Language. And there is almost nothing I like more than the company of other English teachers. Or English-y people. Even when we don't agree--Mark reads a lot of fiction, and you know how I feel about that--I find their company stimulating and engaging.
At one point, my aunt mentioned her church group, the name of which tickled me. She is Episcopalian, and her group calls itself the Episco-Pals. You know, pals, as in friends. I got a charge out of that. I was informed that when a committee was organized for some project, they called themselves the Episco-Planners. "That's wonderful!" I exclaimed. "You can form a study group for the works of Edgar Allan Poe and call yourselves the Episco-Poes! Virtually anything that begins with P, really, can be EpiscoPized." It's true, you know. They can be the Episco-Painters, Episco-Pilots, and they can use their Episco-Power to stamp out Episco-Porn.
Okay, so, maybe not that last example. But it's fun to play with The Language, isn't it? I know that's not so just for those of us who used to teach it or write it for a living. It's a very satisfying contrast for me, to revere The Language in the gorgeous prose of Fitzgerald's Gatsby, in the speeches of Lincoln, and in the clean beauty of Whitman's poetry, but also to be able to tease it and twist it like the EpiscoPuns, slang, and creative neologisms that arise from every niche of our world.