My Agenda

Two points:

Point 1: Educators are often in precarious positions. Their goal is to educate people but, as our society can’t seem to agree on what is “education” and what is not, educators end up doing things that aren’t particularly educational.

(Like teaching Shakespeare.)

Educators who try to broaden horizons by just toeing the line or finding loopholes in the Orders from On High are accused of having an agenda. Educators are penalised for this, regardless of their reasons for teaching the “agenda” material.

Point 2: My provincial government (whom I voted against) is persisting in their destruction of society. Their behaviour is encouraging others to do the same. I am very, very, VERY dismayed by this.

So, here I am, a private educator with access to a minimum of 21 young, impressionable Ontarian brains every week. One of my former students asked if I was going to try to impeach Doug Ford (the frontman of this social destruction).

Nah.

I’m gonna do one better.

I’m going to teach my students about voices other than Doug Ford’s. I’m going to teach my students about voices other than François Legault’s.

I HAVE AN AGENDA.

At Word on the Street, I bought a whole slew of young adult books for my students. These stories are specifically by and/or about BIPOC and/or LGBT+ people.

Why? Because I can.

Because I’m not an Ontario teacher, I can teach my students anything I think they would find interesting and meaningful. I don’t deliberately teach them things that are contrary to their personal values (I’m just an English tutor: it’s not worth an epic battle) but I do deliberately teach them things that will make them think. One cannot read or write well without thinking well.

Most of my students belong to one minority group or other. They need to know that even though their English tutor is white and middle-class, not everything they read and write has to be white and middle-class; they do not need to mimic my voice. Over the years, I’ve also had a few students who needed emotional support that they couldn’t get from their families. My students sometimes need the voices in these stories.

I also get to choose my students. My students are not jerks. When we bring up the concepts of empathy and living in harmony, they get it. It’s not difficult to teach them to be nice to other people

I won’t get to use many of the stories during the school year–perhaps only a handful of new stories per student–but summer comes with two months of educational freedom. This freedom will be instrumental in applying my–and my students’–agenda.

 

CBC and the Propagation of Ignorance

Every time the adults play the “we just need to sell newspapers” game, children end up paying for it.

A couple of years ago, when I first started the in-depth research for my book, CBC was on my list of Very Useful Entities. CBC took a risk with I, Pedophile, and they were pretty good with the facts. (No one is perfect.) Here’s a screenshot from their article Four Misconceptions about Pedophiles:

That was two years ago.

Today, they seem to have forgotten their own work. This past month, as more sexual offences in the church have been brought to light, CBC has chosen to use the word “pedophile” as a synonym for “child sexual abuser”:

The secret life of ‘one of the most prolific sexual abusers in Canadian history: Pedophile priest at centre of Nova Scotia class-action lawsuit sexually abused more than 100 kids in Ontario

Southdown Institute: A ‘shield’ for the Church or a place to provide ‘meaningful’ help for pedophile priests?

‘There’s no room for forgiveness’: Pope’s sexual abuse letter meaningless to survivor

This is a strange thing to do if one is an institution whose mandate is to inform and enlighten (though the next word is “entertain”… and entertaining the punters with scandal is a sure way to sell newspapers).

Even thought it may not sell newspapers, please stop doing this.

Just stop it. Mark Gollom, you are responsible for a headline. Jack Julian and Jon Tattrie you are responsible for another. Stop misusing the words. Tell your colleagues to stop misusing the words.

Everyone has to talk about sexual abuse if we’re ever going to improve the problem. We can’t talk about it until we use the proper language. If we blame all the blue flowers because the purple flowers are taking over, we’re not doing anything useful. It’s a waste of everyone’s time, and it leaves children to take the brunt of it all.

CBC, stop propagating ignorance. Stop propagating hatred for something we don’t understand. You made a promise to inform and enlighten: take it seriously.

Vocabulary 101

Activity Being Avoided: Lesson prep for the week
Music In My Head: Highway – David Francey
Tea Being Drunk: I can’t get any tea because I’m lying on my stomach and there’s a cat sleeping on my back
Books Being Read: Mama’s Boy — David Goudreault, Her Body and Other Parties — Carmen Maria Machado

When I was a child–about six or seven years old–my sister and I were in the back seat of the car, insulting each other.

“You’re despicable!”

“No, you’re despicable!”

“You’re despicabler!”

My parents were ignoring us; my uncle, whom we had just picked up at the airport, (I assume our performance was for him) had one eyebrow raised.

“Do you two know what that word means?”

“Yep! It means you’re pregnant!” (My sister would have been four or five.)

“It means you’re really bad. But we can say that word and Mum doesn’t get mad.”

Where had such young children learned that word? From Daffy Duck, of course. He said it to Bugs Bunny all the time. It was a great word that came with an optional saliva-spraying lisp.

I think about situations like this when I get a new student. New students are always asked why they think they need an English tutor. The answer invariably involves some variant of “I want to improve my vocabulary”. They have lists of SAT words and vocabulary workbooks. They set goals such as learning 100 new words per week.

I didn’t have SAT word lists or vocabulary workbooks when I was growing up. I had the illicit Batman TV show that we watched at a friend’s house, during which the Joker taught me “Foiled again!” and “You have thwarted my nefarious plans for the last time!” I had Rudyard Kipling and his ‘Stute Fish. I had Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things that gnashed their teeth.

I had a mother who, when I didn’t like dinner or my sisters or the way my life was going, asked, “Are you being persecuted?” If I answered, “Yes”, her retort would be something about it putting carbuncles on my soul.

I had a father who said, “That’s ludicrous!” rather than “You stupid child, what were you thinking?”

As Albert Cullum points out in Push Back the Desks, children in Kindergarten pick up on the language that’s fed to them. If you drop a sheet over your head and say, “I’m a friendly apparition”, they’ll make the ghost connection in a couple of minutes. If you flap your arms and say, “Pinions”, they know what you’re talking about. The concept of waiting until a child is “old enough” before we speak to them in an intelligent manner is particularly short-sighted.

Growing up, there were people I would purposefully listen to because I admired their linguistic skills. When I ask my students whose vocabulary they admire, I’m met with blank stares.

What goes in, comes out.

Sometimes I get a student who clicks right away, and they’re able to focus on the best voices available to them. Their vocabulary improves within six months or so.

Other students are convinced that word lists are still the way to go. They remember the words for a couple of weeks, and then the words are gone. I have the students read Calvin and Hobbes comics, and watch Corner Gas and Brit-coms. Eventually, they might see the light and embrace Stephen Fry as their linguistic deity, but we’ve lost valuable time.

We want our children to be “above average”, but we only give them access to mediocrity. It seems to me that in our crusade to make children’s culture entirely educational, positive and uniform, we’ve forgotten to include versatile language.

 

 

In Defense of Semi-Colons and Other Ornaments

Activity Being Avoided: Life. I’m campaigning for aestivation.
Music In My Head: Cowboy Romance – Natalie Merchant
Tea Being Drunk: cold mint tea with a little lemon
Books Being Read: Margery Kempe – Robert Gluck, Ragged Company – Richard Wagamese

I found this: On Semicolons and the Rules of Writing

My initial reaction to Kurt Vonnegut’s quote is “What an arrogant little…”. Those of you who have read this blog know that I’m in favour of pretty things like semi-colons and em dashes, and I only despise the clutter of serial commas because they encourage reading without thinking. You’ll also know that I believe a competent writer should be able to work within the full pyjama-tuxedo range.

Yes, one should be able to write a simple Vonnegut sentence, sans semi-colon. One should also be able to flutter Virginia Woolf’s heart with cleaved clauses.

A Vonnegut sentence (from Slaughterhouse Five–and please ignore the modifier problem): “Billy sat up in bed. He had no idea what year it was or what planet he was on. Whatever the planet’s name was, it was cold.”

A Woolf sentence (from A Room of One’s Own): “The title women and fiction might mean, and you may have meant it to mean, women and what they are like, or it might mean women and the fiction that they write; or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them, or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together and you want me to consider them in that light.”

Now, it’s not easy to write au Vonnegut. As with anything else, simple writing requires attention and practise. It’s even more difficult, however, to write a complicated sentence, to learn to use punctuation–no, to wield it as a chef’s knife–to create the lily and gild it.

Why bother? Why not keep it simple?

Humans don’t always like simple. We like art; we like pretty things; we laud the complex and ornate. While we might take a calming breath in the face of Japanese minimalism, the Sistine chapel receives gasps of admiration.

Each person should have the choice of eliciting breaths or gasps.

If we’re going to force “education” down every callow gullet, there should be a broad purpose to it. There is no purpose to analysing Shakespeare; there is great purpose to being a competent writer. If we spent less time analysing literature and more time honing writing styles, communication would become the most important thing in our society. With communication comes learning and understanding. With communication comes coherence.

We can’t all be the same, but we can learn to communicate with each other. We can also make our existence pretty–because there’s nothing wrong with something being embellished.

 

Dear Fellow White People: TRC Teaching

My provincial government is a bunch of jerks. (Click here for details.)

Now, I work with students who don’t really like to read, but here’s my (unofficial, completely unsupervised) TRC curriculum:

For starters (non-threatening graphic novels for those who don’t read “school books”):

Short stories:

Novels (for speculative fiction fans, sports fans and feminists, respectively):

Play (just one, because my students don’t like plays but they like Emily):

Poetry (the first one is very popular with the science crowd):

Satire:

Politics:

One or More Percent Tolerance

I’m self-employed; I work alone, usually one-on-one with clients. I do have a set of guidelines I give to prospective clients, but I must say that I do not have any hard-and-fast rules.

In my line of work, there’s no “zero tolerance”.

I first heard that term during the brief period my children were in elementary school (before I started homeschooling them). At the time, it was “zero tolerance for violence”. Any student who participated in any sort of violence was suspended from school. Naturally, it didn’t take long for even the Grade 1 students to discover that one thrown chair could get you anywhere up to a week at home. My wee little darling, who was frustratingly active but not inclined to violence, was discovered by his (rational) teacher whilst in the planning stages of a group suspension. He and his cohorts thought it would be great to get out of school. We had to have a little chat about the consequences of actions and exactly how much fun a week in the company of his livid mother would be.

When I was in my early 20s, when the world was black and white, I probably would have agreed with the concept of zero tolerance. By the time I was in my late 20s, the world was starting to get rather grey around the edges. Now, all I see are variants of grey.

Thus, I have “guidelines” rather than “rules”. (Think Pirates of the Caribbean; include the eye-role, if you like.)

My guidelines are designed to protect me but, as a human, I find I need only so much protection. I bounce back from most insults and injuries. Sure, I’ll drop a client if they cancel too often, but if the cancellation involves family catastrophes, the sudden death of both grandparents always trumps anything involving me. I really don’t like being kicked, but if the child is kicking me because that’s the only way they can communicate–and I’ve been hired to teach them to communicate in more effective ways–then zero tolerance begets failure for everyone. 

My other problem with the phrase is that it makes people feel too comfortable. They trust the words and distance themselves from the nitty-gritties of a particular situation, and then everything falls apart when the grey areas show up. Most often, those grey areas are people. They are individuals with faces and names, and they don’t fit into the box for whatever reason.

Frequently, the grey areas surround the powerful people who have instituted the zero-tolerance policy and feel it doesn’t actually apply to them. (They are, after all, “good people” who have instituted a zero-tolerance policy.) As well, if zero tolerance is applied to a behaviour one wants to end, said behaviour merely goes underground until it becomes tolerated again. (See thousands of attempts across history and cultures to ban birth control, alcohol, drugs, sex work, etc.) This leaves the powerful sanctimonious and the vulnerable at risk.

Now’s the time to have a large swig of your tea. Gird your loins: I’m about to suggest an appropriate use of numbers. This is math, people. Math.

Let’s use any positive integer other than zero. For situations that might hurt another person, we can start small–1% or 2% tolerance–and see if that achieves the desired effect. That way, teenagers in a consensual sexual relationship won’t end up on the (bloody stupid) sex offender registry, but people won’t have to put up with being sexually assaulted. In other situations, where the only risk is to the individual, we could up it to, say, 99% tolerance… and we might learn something new.

It’s a different plant, but it’s still a nice plant.

 

Holy Literary Quartet

An announcement:

I have found a writer who is, as of this writing, infallible. She is sufficiently infallible that The Holy Literary Trinity has now been up graded to a quartet.

This newest deity is Sara Baume.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baume is a master at writing sentences that make me stop and re-read them–sentences that make my insides feel all warm and happy.

Samples from the beginning of each book:

  • I’m on my way to purchase a box-load of incandescent bulbs because I can’t bear the dimness of the energy savers, how they hesitate at first and then build to a parasitic humming so soft it hoaxes me into thinking some part of my inner ear has cracked, or some vital vessel of my frontal lobe. (Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither)
  • The white strata are bunching into clouds. The bunches are competing with each other to imitate animals. A sheep, a platypus, a sheep, a tortoise. A sheep, a sheep, a sheep. (A Line Made by Walking)

She doesn’t lose control throughout the books. Right to the end of both, I had to stop to admire the writing style. There are no flat characters. There is nothing to suggest that the book has been edited for common consumers.

There is only good writing.

Ms. Baume, allow me to add this reminder that your new status doesn’t demand infinite infallibility. I permit my divine beings one literary catastrophe each, so don’t feel you’re under too much pressure. I am a compassionate devotee.