Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Don't fuck with a right wing dental assistant

It had only been about four months since my last visit, but my resident gum-scraper wanted me in to take a look at a few things. So while he's out taking care of whatever, I'm strapped in the chair like Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man, having my teeth worked over by Wendy the Republican Dental Hygenist.

Like all hygenists, Wendy wants to talk to you about all kinds of pathetic things while you've got nothing less than Fort Knox in your mouth. First she tells me about her new neighbors: "I'm not racist or anything, but I can't stand that spic music." Then she moves on to raising children: "My new neighbors let their kids run around all over the place, so I called the cops on them. They had the nerve to tell me to mind their own business!"

And finally, the election:
Wendy: So who you voting for?
Me: Awww...ak gah baghd.
Wendy: I know, I don't know what people believe they're going to get if that East coast phony takes the White House. We need a president who's going to stand behind his people. Spit, please.
Me: (spitting) Well, a lot of people say a change is--
Wendy: Back in the chair. (scraping furiously) Ooh, those damn Democrats make me so angry! All their talk about peace and multilateralism...where would we be if Bush hadn't stuck his big boot up Hussein's ass? I'll tell you where--the smallest fucking province of the Iraqi Empire! That's where. You know?
Me: Gah bagh awd...gah bagh.
Wendy: You're damned right. When I hear that kind of whining, I could kill someone, or at the very least cause them some serious pain. Spit.
Me: You know, you have beautiful eyes. I bet you can sight like a marksman with your nine millimeter.
Wendy: Oh, you. Look, I'm blushing.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

So You Wanna Fix a Dangling Modifier and Save the World...

I started this post in an effort to write a serious reflection. Look what happens when I try to get serious. Learned my lesson.
It was one thirty in the afternoon, and my fifth hour composition class was belligerent. In fact, they were downright bewildered, looking at each other in irritation, as if wondering what they were thinking when they signed up for the course last spring.

Yours truly was up at the front (as usual), tie pulled down (not as usual--I don't normally wear ties) and with an irritated look of his own (very much as usual). "I don't see what the problem is with this. It's a dangling modifier. It dangles. It doesn't properly modify. What's the freaking deal?"

In the back of the room, one Edna P. (name changed), from UIC, is observing me. Edna decided a while ago she wanted to be an English teacher, and was urged by her sister to choose me to shadow for a day, as per the university's certification process. Every five minutes, she scribbled like mad in a little steno notebook she brought along. Every time I saw her scribbling, I started to get even more irritated. I didn't know what she was writing, but in my heightened paranoia, I was making some interesting guesses:
Students belligerent...don't comprehend significance of dangling modifier...teacher belligerent...doesn't comprehend students' inability to grasp said modifier...teacher smells like beer...

Teacher needs to slow down...students need to wise up...why the hell am I wanting to do this anyway?
Earlier that day, she'd told me about her own history in education. "I went to school in several cities, and they were terrible. I went to a couple of suburban schools, and decided I really wanted to do that. I've spent the past several years relearning everything I was supposed to know already from high school: Hemingway, Salinger, Shakespeare. I decided it would really be something to make a difference in these kids' lives. If I could reach even one student, I'd be making a difference."

Where did she learn to talk like that? Boston Public?

"Well, you're welcome to join in in any way you see fit," I said, smiling broadly and trying to remind myself that, while I'd never been that idealistic myself, I'd certainly been naive, and had had the good fortune to be ushered towards a more realistic perception of the job. What had I told Rich once upon a time? "I'm going to teach literature. If they don't like it, that's their problem. If they do, then they can take the test, graduate, and leave me alone."

Anyway, despite my welcome, and despite my invitation to take part in the lesson, Edna remained in the back of the room, scribbling like mad and drawing crude caricatures of me with a badly-knotted tie. (Probably.)

"Okay, let's take it from the top," I said to the class, deciding the ABC approach might work better. "What is a modifier?"

"It modifies," one of my better students spoke up. (That's right--I said "better.")

"Okay. And when you modify, it helps to know what you're modifying, right?"

Sullen, reluctant agreement ensued. "Like, 'This class is a total waste of time?" spoke up my right-row wit.

I bit down a sharp retort. "Absolutely. 'Total' goes next to the noun phrase, 'waste of time.' But if you put the modifier too far from what it augments, you've lost your audience like Sam gets lost in the McDonald's Playland when his mommy goes out to smoke a cigarette and use the cell phone."

Damn. Blew that one.

"So what's dangling about that sentence?" ejaculated my front row cheerleader. There were a few other cheerleaders in the back row, nodding their solidarity. "It looks, like, fine to me."

The sentence, on which we all fixed our undying attention, glared at us on the overhead like a rebuke. As if to say, If you haven't figured this out already, you never will. Maybe it was even right. It read: Travelling acrost the U.S., it's vastness effected her.

To their credit, the class had already deciphered the spelling errors (although I started to sweat a little when I realized I'd misspelled "traveling" completely by accident), abbreviation problem and wrong word choice. But they were struggling with the idea that, all mechanics aside, the sentence didn't make a lot of sense.

"I mean, it's not like we expect the U.S. to travel anywhere," the cheerleader continued, working on her eyeliner with a compact mirror. "It's, like, a place, you know?"

I assurred her that I did indeed know. "You see, Shannon, if you have to waste time figuring out what is doing the traveling, you've lost your reader. Remember what we said about readers?"

Like the chorus in a Greek play, the class started their solemn intonation: "The Reader keeps us employed. The Reader is dumb. The Reader has absolutely no attention span and would rather be watching Fox News. As a result, we must cater to the lowest denomination of our Reader without compromising our constant struggle for Truth, Objectivity and Value in our Journalistic Correspondence."

"Yeah, but." My front row cheerleader was nonplused. "Like, I don't understand the newspaper half the time. They're not catering to me."

"That's because you're a dimbulb, sweetheart."

(I had to check carefully to make sure I didn't actually say that.)

(OK--I was clear. But she must have read it on my face.)

"You'll get there, Shannon." I smiled reassuringly. "You can start right now. Isn't there any way to rephrase that sentence so it's a little less confusing?"

Edna, scribbling: Teacher suggests direct student involvement. About fucking time.

My right row super-Sophomore roused his head from his notebook (where he'd left a cast good enough for genealogical work, complete with drool for DNA) and squinted at the overhead as if it were the Rosetta Stone. "Let's just say he's traveling," he suggested. "In the U.S."


"Anywhere. Does it matter? If you cross our town, you're traveling across the country, technically. Aren't you? Didn't you say that?"

The Greek chorus spoke up again: "Semantic ambiguity depends on a willfull obstruction of shared knowledge between speaker and listener, but does not necessarily negate any of the main truths. There are two levels of truth--"

"Oh shut up. Why is it you brats only pay attention when you can prove something I said is wrong?"

(Did I say "brats"? Oh God, please tell me I didn't. Well, please tell me I did. They deserve it. No they don't. Oh shit, someone's talking. I guess I better pay attention.)

Edna: Teacher lapses for a moment. There's no glue left in his bottle on the desk, and he's breathing heavily. Coincidence?

"What?" I rasped.

"I said why don't we just switch the subject and the verb."

Third row, fourth seat. My Aspiring Future Journalist. One of about four or five in the class of twenty-one. My shining young angel. I beamed at her while trying to remain outwardly neutral and scrawled "Traveling across the United States, she was affected by its vastness" in a nearly illegible hand. "See the problem? See the solution? Now we know who was traveling, and now we know the given context of the situation. The reader is no longer confused."

"The Reader keeps us employed. The Reader is dumb. The Reader has absolutely no attention..."

"Yeah, yeah. Now, that's how you fix a dangling modifier."

I waited. The class looked at me expectantly, as if to suggest, That's it? You think that changes my life? I'm still a pimple-encrusted, suburban youth trapped in a smothering environment and you don't even have a window for me to look out of. Who the hell you think you are, anyway?

I breathed deeply, for the kill: "And now, your homework. Fix all the dangling modifiers in the article on page 35 of your packet. Go do it now. Work quietly. Don't bother me."

I slouched over to my desk and busied myself with some paperwork. Most of the class went to the assignment willfully enough, but Super Sophomore made himself comfortable on his notebook again, the cheerleader finished with her eyes and went to work on her nose, and my right-row wit started rewriting sentences to include both my name and speculations about my ancestry. I sighed and looked at the clock on the wall. Ten minutes to the bell.

Edna came over. "I got a lot out of that," she said in a chipper tone of voice.

"Yeah? Good. Hopefully you won't split the modifier "billious blowhard" with my name."

She laughed politely, and for a minute I wondered why. Then I realized I hadn't said that at all. More something like, "They're good kids. They just need work on the basics."

"My professor says it's always important to connect with your class interpersonally. Get comfortable with them one-on-one."

"Do tell. What else does she tell you?"

"That it's wrong to belittle students, or tax them for not knowing something when it's your job to teach them."

(Oh crap. I was talking out loud all that time.)

"Yeah, well, you tell your professor that in the Ivory Towers she undoubtedly lives in, that's all fine and dandy. But out here, we have to hold them accountable for what they already know. If we don't, they can ride No Child Left Behind all the way to the unemployment office in their mid-forties."

Now that time I actually spoke. She frowned at me, not sure if I was kidding or not.

"I don't want to tell you 'This is the way it is,' because it's different for different people, places, classes. Who you are is half your day right there. Just be aware that it's a continuous process. You know when they learn what a dangling modifier is? Eighth grade. Maybe earlier. Just like they learn what nouns and verbs are. Half of them mix all that up."

I was rambling. I was tired. Edna wasn't writing in her book.

"What I'm saying: Each kid is a situation. So are you. Connections are fine and dandy, but sooner or later, you have to realize you've got to do it the way you think works, and stand by it until it doesn't work for you any more. That's how you stay sane, pumpkin."

Later on in the day, Edna would tell me she still wanted to be a teacher (interesting comment), and that I "made it look a whole lot easier than it actually was." I suppose I do, actually. Lots of people do, at lots of jobs. The decisions you make are not going to be agreable, or even acceptable, to about half the free world, but, like our sterling president, you stand by them because you believe in them. (If you're proved wrong, that would be a good time to stop thinking like our president and start thinking like someone with functional neurons, but that's another story.)

I have no way to conclude this little vignette, except to point out that Edna is writing a paper about me as we speak. Were her account compared with mine, I don't doubt for a second they would be widely disparate.

Were her professor to compare this account with the textbooks, she'd probably have a few things to say. Ditto my professors' take on it and hers. Ditto my co-workers. Ditto my boss.

There's a lesson in there somewhere. Too bad I didn't think of it in time to teach it to her. But it's nice knowing it myself.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Lessons learned after a crappy Monday:

1) I'm not in grad school any more. As a result, there's only so much time I can devote to higher education, especially considering the fact that this is a 3-hour class for recertification, and I'm not going to see another dime in pay increase unless I do this four more times over the course of a year or two. That means the two or three hours I spent on this Black Plague paper is time well spent...but also robs me of time spent elsewhere.

2) Assigning work for the kiddies is a piece of cake, and fun. "What's that, Joey? You planned on going to the Homecoming Dance? Ha ha, not any more! Get that project together or I'm calling Mommy again!" Then flash forward two weeks, or four, or six, or whatever, and see your Friendly Neighborhood English Teacher sitting at a desk, a stack of essays in front of him, his hair falling out in sheepdog-like clumps, while the students prance along on their merry way, laughing at his shortsightedness...

3) Senioritis is a bullshit term. These kids are just lazy.

4) Skipping coffee in the morning and having a few granola bars on hand saves you five or ten minutes. But if all you're going to do with that time is huddle in the bed, wondering if the alarm going off is just a dream, you wasted that time anyway.

5) Einstein wore the same clothes all the time, this is true. But if you don't know how to shop for clothes, and as a result, have a more or less consistent pattern of colors, the rest of the world picks up on it toot sweet. And nobody's mistaking yours truly for Einstein. More like a cheap bastard who spends most of his money on restaurants and movies.

6) Everyone else is calling in sick because of husbands in town for the weekend, or children who need to be hospitalized. Wussies. And just because I don't have a kid in Little League doesn't mean I shouldn't be able to take time out for him anyway.

7) How dare I waste time pleasure reading? I need to finish the Pitti diaries for class (which I didn't finish for sake of a cold bottle of Bud).