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The Original "Give a Damn"

A Teacher's Plea

Screen Shot 2020-04-21 at 11.32.53 PMOnly those who go where few have gone can see what few have seen.
Buddha Gautama

 

I wrote this piece many years ago, and it is my first writing piece that I wrote "for" my students at the time. For ten years I was the shop teacher, but the school needed an English teacher for one section of 8th grade. I had to beg for the job. Mr. Ward somewhat reluctantly gave me a try. Then they were stuck with me. This was before we even had blogs, and I was struggling to get my students to actually give a damn about what they were writing. I wanted them to know that I cared more about who they were then what they were. They seemed shocked, but they reacted with enthusiasm, and when I see them now, many years later, we laugh and remember it as if it were yesterday.

    This is my first year of teaching English, and already a horizon of discontent is looming. In another place I would probably need a bodyguard. Today, I not only assigned my eighth grade class the first five chapters—37 pages—in some book called A Guide To Writing Essays, but I also told these students the same thing I told their parents: that nothing is more important than the ability to write a good essay; that essay writing is a skill that will save them time and again in this great adventure called life. I then went on about how educational, fun, and rewarding it would be. I teased them with tales of how they would discover huge deposits of original thought and creative speculations—rough stones that they would craft into a wonderful creation called The Essay. They were writers, each and every one of them, and I would prove it to them. I think some of them believed me—even I believed me! I’m sure some of them saw through my pontifications and secretly wished to be placed in another section. Their parents were, I’m sure, aghast at my naivete, but they simply looked at me with stoic resignation, accepting the fate of their son to be the proving ground for an old shop teacher run amok in a classroom. 

But, here I am now, two months into my new career, and I hate teaching essays. It’s tough to admit, but I despise the core responsibility of my job—teaching this venerated form of writing. I can’t help but think we’ve taken an essentially organic miracle called the mind and decided to treat it like an erector set—a series of blocks and connectors which, if put together properly, sometimes creates something that resembles something. That “something” is occasionally a remarkable piece of writing. Like once or twice a semester. 

I am not alone in my fraud, although I feel somewhat lonely fessing up and questioning this sacred truth. We tell our students that the ability to write a good essay is indispensable. We warn them of apocalyptic days ahead when the effective and formulaic writing of essays will be the final arbiter of their scholastic abilities. We extrapolate from larger than life stories that a single well-written essay will get them into Harvard, help them find that certain job, elect their candidate, even find their mate! Persuasive, narrative, critical, expository, analytical, reflective—it is the essay “form” that marries itself to almost any situation. It is the Holy Grail—the top end model of the English curriculum in almost every school in the country. It has pushed the snarling beast of grammar and syntax into the corner where it belongs. If poetry is not completely banished, it has become, at most, a quaint holiday in the Berkshires—a pleasant place to spend one or two days away from the rigor of a real curriculum. Even the best of literature is laid out on the table, awaiting the essay’s sharp, incisive and generally misguided probes. A well-written essay, we are told, is the genius of insight weathered into granite. It will outlive you and your children, and many generations after them. If so, why have I never heard of a single great writer who proclaims, or proclaimed themselves, to be an essay writer? Why?—because it’s like saying you cook awesome hot dogs.  Or you’ve never been outside Rhode Island.  

Is there something weird in me? Am I missing something?  Perhaps I’m a bad teacher, or lazy, or misled, but, this “essay writing” doesn’t do a whole lot for me. I’ve tried. I’m still trying. (I am, in fact, writing this—whatever this is.) I’m am side by side in the trenches with my students. I see them tense up when I simply utter the words “thesis statement.” When I follow up that tired command by preaching the virtues and efficacy of outlining headers and adding supporting facts a bitter teaching reality settles in—like an unwanted guest—they notice, but they don’t really care. They don’t find it slightly interesting. The majority of the students drift slowly away. A few are completely shut down. The grade grubbers are in a purgatory between obligation and exasperation.  The smart ones are making mental notes that they will never be a teacher like me. The hibernating perk up when they hear the word “conclusion,” but they soon discover that it’s only a cruel hoax, an excuse to have them start back at the beginning—and the meek, all of us, surrender to the vicious cycle of introduction, body, and ending. The bookshelves are stacked with the detritus of years of literary massacres. Students and teachers eye each other like creatures that eat their own. Only the threat of vocabulary keeps them at their desks.

You can’t be a teacher and believe in fate. There has to be a belief in the transformative power of the moment. The French teacher at our school told me that the word “essay” is derived from the French verb essaei, which means “to try.” I like that. There is something in those words that awakens a spirit of hope and freedom in me. I can try. I’ll try valiantly. I’ll try to show you that I give a damn about what I say and think and write. I’ll try to show you that I love the sounds of words and the nuance of sentences. I love that words are woven into a magician’s tale. I love that every gaggle of words is essentially a story. I love that I am moved to tears by a good book or an old poem. Love! If that is not true understanding, then something is terribly awry. Here! Here are my tears.  

What more can you possibly need? No, damn you and damn me; I don’t need your essays—I need you to essai; I need the miracle of your mind to give itself to the miracle of language. I need you to be an unwilling heir to tradition: I need you to get rid of the erector set; I need you to get rid of the artifice that stands between you and your understanding. I need you to answer whatever question I throw at you with that greatest gift of our creation—words. 

We know beauty when we see it. We measure the power of words by the feelings they evoke. We measure their clarity and freshness as we would a mountain stream. We are led on small and great journeys by storytellers. (What writer is not a storyteller?)  We are carried to those deeper wells, and from those unplumbed depths we invoke the source of all courageous originality and our common humanity. 

We can learn ourselves, if we essai—if we try. To try is to care. In the end, you just have to give a damn. 

The Fenn School
October, 2003

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