English Lesson

(Lines Composed after a Bodaciously Bad Day)

by Katie Winkler

A comparative–

Better than before.

Better than this.

Better than that.

Better than some.

Use it in a sentence, please.

When will it be better?

I have been so much better.

Only you can make it better.

Only you

It’s an adjective, dear.

See, here–

Better times

Better rhymes

Better ways

Better days

Simply good is only an adjective.

And the Best is so superlative.

But

Better

Is

Comparative–

It is

Somewhere in Between.

******

I know my job gets me down sometimes, like today, but honestly, what do I have to complain about? I get to teach people how to be better writers, read, study and talk about great writers as well as write for my own pleasure–for a living. Is this a great country or what?

Then, there are days like today. But, the day is almost over, and I survived. I’m sitting with the ones I love the most, our little cat snoozing on the sofa. Plus, I just wrote a little poem. It’s nothing special, but I like it because I feel at peace now and better than I have all week. Better.

Hatcher Garden with Hannah 017

Me at Hatcher Gardens in Spartanburg, SC–April, 2015

******

Are you a writing teacher? Do you write when you have had a bad day, or is writing the last thing you want to do when you come home from work? I want to know! Please share with me your experiences as a writing teacher–the frustrations and the victories, the writing you do just for fun, to release the tensions of the day–whatever you have to share. If I think it’s right for my new online literary journal, Teach. Write. I will publish it in the Fall 2017 premiere.

Submissions are open now until July 1, so if you don’t have time to write during the school year, you’ll still have time to submit in the summer. Check out my submission guidelines, and I hope to hear from you soon!

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The Quality of Mercy

images

Maggie Smith, one of my favorite actors, as Portia 
in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice--
the BBC's 1972 version of the play

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, …

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much

To mitigate the justice of thy plea;

Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice

Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1

I am so much like Shylock. I believe strongly in justice. Just like Shylock, I don’t just seek justice, I demand it. But unlike him, I hope, in dealings with my students anyway, I see the wisdom of Portia, one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s female characters, and I know that it would have served Shylock well to heed Portia’s words and render mercy. And indeed, many times when a student asks for mercy, and I choose to give it, we are indeed both blessed. The student gets a chance to rectify whatever problem there is–attendance, poor performance in class, misbehavior in class, whatever it may be, and I get the satisfaction of helping a student succeed and truly learn something valuable.

Sometimes, however, that mercy is given, the student takes it, and then uses my act of mercy against me. This just doesn’t happen to teachers, of course, but I find that the teaching profession seems particular vulnerable to the ungrateful. I get so disheartened when this happens that I want to make a list of strict rules and never show any mercy whatsoever. Sometimes I think my colleagues and supervisors would be happier if my mercy were a bit less freely given.  Now, I do have rules and high standards, but I temper them with mercy if I see that I can help the student. I just have to, you see, because of the mercy shown to me.

I remember when I was a senior in undergrad school. I was struggling, like a lot of my own students, with who I was and where I was going next. I was pretty smart and had a way with words, but I was so caught up in my life –meeting people and learning a new language and becoming a woman and discovering hidden talents, like acting and persuasive speaking, that I had, frankly, lost interest in my English studies.

I procrastinated with my paper and put it off and off that last semester of my first senior year that when I finally started working on it in earnest, I realized that it would be impossible for me to finish. I had to ask for an extension. I was truly scared when I walked into my professor’s office. He was intimidating because he was so brilliant as well as being the head of the English department. I didn’t think he even really knew my name. I was standing there and couldn’t speak. He finally looked up and said something, I can’t really remember, and I blurted it all out. Not all of “it” was absolutely true either, but he had mercy. He gave me the extension I requested without hesitation. Then he did something I never expected–He pointed to the chair and said, “Now sit down and tell me what’s really bothering you.”

I finished the paper that first semester of my 2nd senior year. I never had worked so hard on anything in my life. 35 pages comparing the works of Flannery O’Connor and Franz Kafka–two displaced people who didn’t fit in anywhere, so they became writers or maybe they were writers and that’s why they didn’t fit in. I still don’t know. Anyway, I could say I finally found my way while I was writing that paper, and it would be a lie. I could say I stopped procrastinating and learned my lesson; that too would be untrue. No, I worked that hard out of gratitude to the professor who showed me mercy. His mercy, freely given, was twice blessed.

So I lean towards mercy when I think that mercy is going to be best for the student, when the student has a chance of making real change in his or her life. However, the quality of mercy is not strained (or forced). If the mercy is to be at all, then it must come freely given from the person granting that gift. For example, Portia is a wise judge. She knows she cannot legally force Shylock to have mercy because then that mercy would simply be a violation of justice. True mercy requires true justice. So she appeals to Shylock’s sense of justice when she appeals to his mercy. But he doesn’t want justice. He wants revenge.

As we see later in the play, Shylock made a grave mistake not granting mercy–it led to his bankruptcy and loss of his only child–making the play a tragedy more than a comedy in my mind, so great is Shylock’s loss. But Shylock’s fall is inevitable because Shylock is so full of anger, justifiably so perhaps considering the anti-semitic society in which he lives, that he can not show mercy because mercy must be freely given.

Therefore, even if a student takes my merciful action and uses it against me, it is still a gift freely given in an attempt to help that student. If now that student is demanding mercy, I can not give it because it is not freely given and would corrupt justice.
However, if I truly believe that I am standing my ground for the sake of the student as well as the integrity of my profession, then I am blessed no matter how the student misuses my gift. If no one ever acknowledges that I did the right thing and some people rally against me because of my stand, I will still be blessed because I didn’t allow others to pervert my deep sense of justice. 
I will continue to seek justice by upholding established policies and procedures, to fight for what is right, and I will continue to show mercy. Not because it is in my nature–it is not; not because my faith demands it–it does not. I show mercy out of gratitude–gratitude to the one whose unmerited favor has given me such a wonderful, abundant life.

To Become a “Miracle Worker” Too

Miracle worker Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in 1962’s “The Miracle Worker” by William Gibson When I was a young girl in the 60’s, I loved to watch old movies on Saturday afternoon. Some of these movies made a deep impact on me for one reason or another. I remember watching one of my first Shakespeare plays on Saturday morning–the 1935 version of Midsummer Night’s Dream starring Olivia de Havilland as Hermia, Andy Rooney as Puck and James Cagney, yes, James Cagney, as Bottom. I didn’t know any of those actors then, but I was fascinated by their actions. I barely understood a word of what was said but I was mesmerized by the words. So many movies during those halcyon days, when my viewing choices may have been fewer but have rarely been better, helped form my love not only of film but also of story telling and the theater, psychology and human development, justice and mercy–movies like Citizen Kane and Rebecca, Stage Door and All about Eve, To Kill a Mockingbird and 12 Angry Men. 

However, there is one movie that told a story which stands out above the rest in my mind, a story that helped solidify a desire that was already growing in me before I was a decade old–the desire to teach. That story is told in the 1962 film The Miracle Worker, the story of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan. I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to be a teacher, but watching Annie struggle to teach Helen, to give some meaning to the child’s dark and silent life by giving her the gift of language and in return seeing her own life change from dark to light, caused the stirrings of desire to leap into a consuming passion.

I was reminded yesterday of this great story and its impact on my career choice when I went to see our local community theater’s production of William Gibson’s play. I’ve seen it several times over the years and the movie many times, but something about the intimacy of the small theater and the fine acting by my friend who was playing Annie and another friend’s young daughter who played Helen, brought back the force the story and its impact on my life in a way I hadn’t felt in many years. This time, however, I have been a teacher for thirty years, a bit jaded about my profession, especially these days, especially in North Carolina, but watching Helen’s face at the water pump as the water flows over her hands and she finally understands what words are, seeing Annie’s face when Helen comes to her with her new found knowledge and signs that special word “teacher” renewed my love of teaching.

One passage in particular especially rang true to me last night. In the scene Annie is discouraged because she has brought Helen to the threshold of understanding language, has struggled mightily to bring her there, but words are still just a finger play to Helen and time is running out. Annie looks down at the deaf, blind and mute child with such yearning and says these words:

I wanted to teach you—oh, everything the earth is full of, Helen, everything on it that’s ours for a wink and it’s gone, and what we are on it, the—light we bring to it and leave behind in—words, why, you can see five thousand years back in a light of words, everything we feel, think, know—and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave. And I know, I know, one word and I can—put the world in your hand—and whatever it is to me, I won’t take less!

Is it any wonder that even way back when I was not much older than Helen was that day the world opened up to her, that my world opened up to me? That day I knew what I wanted to do–help people understand the beauty and power of words. When I got a little older, one of the first biographies I read was Helen Keller’s autobiography, “The Story of My Life.” I chose that book because I had seen the movie and been so intrigued by Annie Sullivan and how it must feel to teach a child. Reading the story from Helen’s perspective fueled my passion for teaching. In this passage Helen describes that day at the water pump:

I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.*

I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.

I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them–words that were to make the world blossom for me, “like Aaron’s rod, with flowers.” It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come.

Some people struggle to know what to do with their lives, to find themselves, but I knew long ago as a little girl watching TV on a Saturday afternoon, when I could have been outside playing, that some day I would be a teacher. As much as I have wanted to escape my destiny over the years, it’s clear that I am where I belong, doing what I was born to do. What William Wordsworth said is true, “The child is father of the man.”

Mother of the woman, too.