Teach. Write. Deadline Extended

Are you a writing teacher who loves to write? Do you write responses to your own writing prompts? Is writing for publication something you have done or dream of doing?

If your answer is yes to any of these questions, then I want to see your writing! The premiere edition of Teach. Write. : A Literary Journal for Composition Teachers is beginning to take shape. I have accepted several impressive creative non-fiction essays and poetry, but I would love to have more, especially flash or short fiction. Therefore, I have extended the submission period to August 1, 2017.

If you are teaching or have taught English composition at any level in any setting, then I want to read your work.

See the page Teach. Write. Submission Guidelines for more information and….

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William Eldridge Dabbs–My Uncle El

The Foundling

This is the edition that Uncle El gave me. I had to replace it a couple of years ago because I read and re-read it so much. I still have the copy, though.

My Uncle El, my mother’s only sibling, passed away over 25 years ago. He, like the rest of those in my mother’s family, was a teacher–at least for most of his life. He taught Spanish. After his first heart attack, even before really, he, like so many teachers before him, was experiencing some significant burn-out–totally understandable burn-out, but he never lost his teacher heart–his love for books and words and music–his yearning to travel and see new places.

He was a tolerant and patient uncle, up to a point. I think when I was about 10, my brother, sister and I learned just how far we could push him–my younger brother learned later. He was a kid’s dream uncle. He would take us to the movies in whatever cool car he had at the time (the convertible complete with 8-track player was my favorite). I remember one time after seeing Charlton Heston in a Sci Fi movie, riding around Columbus with the top down, hanging out the window and yelling, “Soylent Green is people!” And he let us do that! What a great guy!.

Always single with no family of his own, he was always there when we needed him. He drove mom to the hospital when she went into labor with my brother Rob. He took my sister and I to horse shows–staying with us in the heat of an Alabama summer day and late into the night. He accompanied our family across the country when my dad came home from Vietnam, and we wanted to meet Dad in California. He took us out for pizza and steak, ice cream ahd his favorite, Chinese food. He bought us fireworks (legal in Alabama at the time), something that Mom would not have done for sure. He would let us play while he stayed inside and read his books. He was always reading a book.

To satisfy his love of books on a public school teacher’s pay, he often frequented the big used book store in Columbus, Georgia and another one in Montgomery, Alabama–Auburn was still just a little college town and didn’t have too many places to shop in the 60s and 70s. He would go on these book trips and get dozens and dozens of books. He was very proud of them and kept them all in order. He would get detective novels, historical fiction, thrillers, and even romances. He never said that he got the romances for me, in fact, I often saw him reading them himself, but he always made it a point to show me the romances that he bought, and I felt that they were for me.

After one of these shopping trips, he showed me a box full of one particular romance author–Georgette Heyer, his favorite Regency romance writer. I had not started reading Jane Austen yet. She was still a bit difficult for me, so he told me that Heyer was a 20th Century author who wrote about the early 19th Century in England, just like Austen, but that Heyer would probably be easier for me to read. He had at least a dozen of her books in the box, and he challenged me to read them that summer. I took up the gauntlet and after the first book I was hooked! Heyer wrote with such wit–her characters were funny, heroic and honorable–just like Austen. Heyer’s heroines were not always the most beautiful or even the most clever, but they had courage and resilience, and I so wanted to be like them.

Uncle El made it a point to collect all of the Georgette Heyer Regency romances and mysteries. He would read them too, and we would talk about the wonderful characters and the funniest passages. Reading Georgette Heyer, and soon afterwards, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and others, I became a true Anglophile and have remained one ever since, now teaching British literature, specializing in 19th Century British literature.

I don’t think my uncle was looking for a teachable moment when he introduced me to Georgette Heyer–he just shared his love of books with me, but his interest in me and in my literary education has had a profound and lasting impact on my life. He was a great teacher, a great man, and I miss him.

*   *   *

If you like witty, charming romantic novels, give Georgette Heyer a try. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • The Foundling
  • Friday’s Child
  • Cotillion
  • The Quiet Gentleman
  • The Unknown Ajax

The Quality of Mercy

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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.