For my students’ final writing assignment in English 111: Writing and Inquiry, they compose a reflective essay that addresses the features of the course that have contributed to their development as writers and critical thinkers. As I embarked on this final assignment with them, my thoughts repeatedly returned to the hours they had devoted to playing Scrabble on Wordplay Days, a bimonthly feature that I included in my classes for the first time this semester.

When the students in the Monday-Wednesday 8 o’clock class tore the plastic from the boxes of Retro Edition Scrabble, I had no idea how they would respond to the game. Back in August, when I had decided to include bimonthly Wordplay Days on the calendar, I did so to achieve two of my goals as a teacher: first, to offer students an opportunity to collaborate on a low-stakes assignments that would develop their critical thinking skills and word power; and second, to provide another chance for them to turn away from screens.

A year earlier, in August 2017, when I revised my writing class curriculum to minimize my students’ screen time, I did so because both the research of psychologists and my own anecdotal evidence revealed the critical need to do so for the benefit of students’ mental health and cognitive development. With that in mind, I reserved more class time for my students to turn the pages of our textbook, to read aloud and pore over words, and to compose essay drafts in longhand—all while still maintaining blogs and devoting class time to typing essay revisions and posting comments to their classmates’ blogs.

Over the summer, as I looked back on the previous school year, I thought of the students’ faces. Some had seemed to express genuine interest, but more often they conveyed resignation or resistance. Research and my own observations of students’ progress assured me that my teaching practices were sound, but I remained troubled by how reading and writing away from the screen, rereading for deeper understanding, and putting pen to paper all seemed like drudgery to my students. How could I enliven the classroom? I asked myself. Scrabble came to me as an answer as I was mulling over possibilities for collaborative classroom activities. Because my grading system includes a participation and preparedness category, I am able to give students opportunities to improve their grades with low-stakes assignments, such as submitting monthly letters in stamped, addressed, and sealed envelopes. I do not grade the students on the quality of their letter writing (since I don’t read them). Instead, I grade them for the act of submitting the letters for me to mail.

I realized that I could similarly grade students for their participation in Scrabble Days, or—as I chose to call them—Wordplay Days, if I devised a score sheet that I could use to document their participation.

“Each team will appoint a scorekeeper,” I told the students on the first Wordplay Day, “but your grades will not be based on those scores. Instead, they will be based on your participation and the completion of the score sheet. If you participate in the game, don’t reach for your smartphones, and complete the score sheet, you will achieve one-hundred percent participation for the day.”

Then I held my breath.

The students gathered in their designated groups (drawn at random by a student volunteer) and began to play. When the class period ended, I had to remind them that it was time to leave. Let me repeat that: When the class period ended, I had to remind them that it was time to leave. What I had witnessed on that first Wordplay Day was not only students forming words on Scrabble boards but also posing questions about words (Is that a word?), and passing around the box top to study the rules of play. As they played, their postures and facial expressions changed. They were comfortable and happy. It’s not an overstatement to say that Scrabble transformed the classroom.

Noting that transformation isn’t to say that all of the students liked Scrabble. Some clearly didn’t. But even the students who agreed that “Scrabble, to put it bluntly, is a lousy game” (Kay C5) seemed to appreciate the opportunity to earn credit for an activity that didn’t seem dull or menial. And their other work in the classroom began to seem less arduous to them. Perhaps they didn’t mind reading and writing as much when they knew more Wordplay Days were still to come. Or perhaps they began to make connections between their book work and board play as they increased their word power and became more sophisticated strategists.

One of the first reading assignments that followed the inaugural Wordplay Day focused on games—not board games but electronic ones. When my students and I read portions of Sam Anderson’s “Just One More Game . . .” in class, I was struck by his reference to Jane McGonigal. Anderson notes that “[i]n her book Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal argues that play is possibly the best, healthiest, most productive activity a human can undertake—a gateway to our ideal psychological state” (108). What I witnessed when my students played Scrabble seemed to attest to that. But McGonigal, I later learned, is a video game designer. My awareness of the research that links screen time with increased anxiety, depression, and sleep deprivation (Twenge par. 43) makes the notion of video games as a “gateway to our ideal psychological state” (Anderson 108) seem perverse.

That said, I am not opposed to electronic versions of Scrabble and similar word games, such as Words with Friends. But replacing board-game Scrabble with its digital counterpart—or with another video game, or smartphone app—would be contrary to my aim of limiting students’ screen time. And bearing in mind the research, I believe there’s a critical need to repeat this unpopular line at the beginning of class: “Your digital devices should be tucked away.”

As the semester progressed, fewer students were staring at screens when I entered the classroom, and rarely—and in some classes never—did I find myself asking a student to put away a phone during a Scrabble game.

About a month before the semester’s end, on a day when the students enjoyed a scheduled break from classes, our school’s administrators, faculty, and staff were on hand for an event called the Tenth-Grade Extravaganza, which brings more than one-thousand high school students to our campus to learn about the college.

Late in the day, one of the campus administrators shepherded the last tour group to the Blackbox Theatre, where I was assisting the theatre professor and her student volunteers. The last portion of the Theatre Department’s tour took place in the costume area, where we had set up a station for selfies and group photos. On a table nearby, we’d placed hats and various props for students to pose with. As the students fiddled with the hats and props, trying one, then another, their shepherd-administrator nudged me and said: “That girl over there has looked sad throughout the tour, but when she put that sock puppet on her arm, her face lit up with joy.” When I turned and saw that tenth-grader’s joyful face, she became one of my own students who had transformed before my eyes. The sock puppet was her Scrabble.

My return this semester to public higher education marked my first experience with lockdown drills. While they are new to me, most of my students’ years in school have long been disrupted by periodic exercises in avoiding slaughter. Witnessing how quickly they sprang into action, how the protocol was second nature to them, was heartbreaking. As I crouched with them in the corner, I thought of how now, more than ever, classrooms need to provide our students with a gateway out of the darkness and into joy.

Works Cited

Anderson, Sam. “Just One More Game . . . : Angry Birds, Farmville, and Other Hyperaddictive Stupid Games.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. Norton, 2016, pp. 105-110.

Kay, Jonathan. Review. “Scrabble is a Lousy Game.” The Wall Street Journal, 6-7 Oct. 2018, C.5.

Twenge, Jean. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/Sept. 2017, Accessed 28 Aug. 2018.

Scrabble Game Changer

In October, after I read Jonathan Kay’s Wall Street Journal review “Scrabble is a Lousy Game,” I meditated on his criticism of Scrabble as a word game that deemphasizes semantics. I asked myself, if I want my students to play a board game that cultivates word power and critical thinking skills, is Scrabble the game to choose? Thus, Kay’s review became the starting point for my research on the cognitive benefits of Scrabble play. As I scrolled through search results, I found only a couple of articles that specifically addressed Scrabble in the college classroom, but many that focused on the value of the game, itself, for sharpening the mind.

Article and draft

The dearth of articles on Scrabble in the college classroom may be explained by the emphasis on classwork with assessable outcomes rather than activities that foster the habits of mind essential to lifelong learning. The bibliography that follows includes Kay’s review, the starting point for my research, along with three refereed research articles. Two offer windows into the classrooms of professors whose students play Scrabble: one an English professor at a two-year college in California, the other a professor of engineering at a polytechnic university in Russia. The third article addresses cognitive evaluations of competitive Scrabble players and what they reveal about how experience shapes word recognition.

How much does Scrabble play cultivate our word power? The answer to that question remains unclear, but the research of psychologists and educators points to the merits of team Scrabble for improving not only our language skills, but also our facility with critical thinking, team-building, and spatial skills.

As I review my research on Scrabble, I look forward to searching for additional studies and commentary on the game. Whether it will lead to a larger project of my own, I do not know. But the knowledge I have gained will inform my teaching as I continue to revise the curriculum and consider additional opportunities for wordplay in the classroom.

Annotated Bibliography

Fletcher, Jennifer. “Critical Habits of Mind: Exposing the Process of Development.” Liberal Education, Winter 2013, pp. 50-55. Association of American Colleges and Universities, https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/critical-habits-mind-exposing-process-development. Accessed 26 Nov. 2018.

“Critical Habits of Mind” addresses the teaching practices of a group of college math and writing faculty who collaborated to develop lessons to foster intellectual capacities, such as motivation and self-efficacy. Developmental educational instructors from three California colleges, Cabrillo, California State University-Monterey Bay, and Hartnell College, partnered to pilot classroom activities, including clicker technology, peer writing review, improvisation, metacognitive writing activities (e.g. “Math Anxiety Essays”), and Scrabble Fridays. Reflecting on their collaboration, author Jennifer Fletcher, associate professor of English at CSUMB, observes that foregrounding procedural knowledge, as their pilot activities did, enabled them to couple their teaching of discipline-specific content with the set of behaviors essential to teaching and learning.

Fletcher’s account of Hartnell writing instructor Hetty Yelland’s Scrabble Fridays is of particular value to educators who are considering Scrabble play as a classroom activity. Fletcher notes that Yelland’s observes “the extra effort students have to make to overcome the boredom—and their passive word knowledge—that eventually leads to more active and internalized language practices” (54).

Hargreaves, Ian S., et al. “How a Hobby Can Shape Cognition: Visual Word Recognition in Competitive Scrabble Players.” Memory & Cognition, vol. 40, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-7. ProQuest, http://nclive.org/cgi-bin/nclsm?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/952889499?accountid=9935.

“How a Hobby Can Shape Cognition” presents the findings of Canadian researchers in the Departments of Psychology and Medicine at Calgary University who investigated how the word recognition skills of competitive Scrabble players differed from those of age-matched nonexperts. The researchers’ cognitive evaluations revealed differences only in Scrabble-specific skills, such as anagramming. Also, the researchers observed that Scrabble expertise was associated with two specific effects: vertical fluency and semantic deemphasis. The study’s results indicate that experience shapes visual word recognition.

The research of Ian Hargreaves and his colleagues at the University of Calgary is pertinent to educators who seek to understand the cognitive benefits of frequent Scrabble play. Notably, the semantic deemphasis that the study identifies—and that Jonathan Kay addresses in his review—contrasts the gains in language skills that Hetty Yelland observes in her English students.

Kay, Jonathan. Review. “Scrabble is a Lousy Game.” The Wall Street Journal, 6-7 Oct. p. C. 5.

In “Scrabble is a Lousy Game,” writer and editor Jonathan Kay criticizes Scrabble for its lack of emphasis on semantics. In Kay’s words, the game “is like a math contest in which you are rewarded for reciting pi to the 1,000th decimal place but not knowing that it expresses the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter” (C5). Kay asserts that the best board games for casual players involve a mix of luck and skill and recommends two other board games, Codenames and Paperback, as better options for wordplay.

While Kay’s review focuses on the competitive player’s approach to Scrabble, the concerns he raises about the game’s deemphasis of word meaning and the frustration that novice players can experience warrant the attention of educators who are considering introducing Scrabble play into their classrooms. And his recommendations of Codenames and Paperback offer teachers two word-game options to pursue as alternatives Scrabble.

Kobzeva, Nadezda. “Scrabble as a Tool for Engineering Students’ Critical Thinking Skills and Development.” Procedia: Social and Behavioral Sciences, no. 182, 2015, pp. 369-74. ScienceDirect, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042815030669. Accessed 26 Nov. 2018.

“Scrabble as a Tool for Engineering Students’ Critical Thinking Skills and Development” presents research involving second-year engineering students and teachers of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) at Tomsk Polytechnic University in Tomsk, Russia. The students—all non-native speakers of English—played Scrabble as an in-class and out-of-class-activity for one academic year. At the end of the year, the best six student players competed in teams in a tournament against two teams of the six EFL teachers. Throughout the tournament—which was conducted outside of the classroom to relieve students of the pressure to obtain a high score—the researcher, Nadezda Kobzeva, observed the contrast in the students’ and teachers’ practices as players. While the EFL instructors possessed an advanced knowledge of English language, they were newcomers to Scrabble. On the other hand, the engineering students with limited knowledge of English relied on the skills they developed throughout their year-long Scrabble program. In the feedback the students provided after the tournament, which they won, the majority of students rated the skills they developed as Scrabble players as excellent in all five fields assessed, including team-building, thinking, spatial skills, vocabulary, and spelling.

Kobzeva, a professor of engineering at Tomsk, focused his research on engineering students, but his findings are valuable to researchers and teachers in other fields who seek answers to the questions of how Scrabble can be used effectively as a learning tool, and what specific skills students may develop through frequent play.

James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” depicts the life of a young jazz musician and addict, as seen through the eyes of his older brother. The inciting incident—what prompts the older brother to tell Sonny’s story—is a police report in the newspaper, citing Sonny’s arrest the night before. Reading that brief story, one that reduces his brother to someone who “peddle[s] and us[es] heroin” (813), leads the older-brother-narrator to meditate on the events that led to Sonny’s incarceration. The news of his arrest—albeit a brief item in the paper—plays a critical role in the opening paragraph, providing not only the inciting incident but also a counterpoint for the improvisation that breathes life into Sonny’s character. Despite the narrator’s initial dislike of Sonny’s music, the structure of his own storytelling mimics the composition of jazz, underscoring the kinship of his nonlinear, polyphonic story and the piano playing of his brother.

In the second paragraph of the story, the narrator recounts how he thought about Sonny all day “while [he] taught [his] classes algebra” (813). Placing the narrator in the classroom gives Baldwin the opportunity both to show how the students remind the narrator of Sonny as a youth and how the narrator’s occupation further differentiates him from his younger brother. Unlike the algebra that the narrator teaches, Sonny’s music and his life are disjointed.

As the narrator continues to reflect on his brother’s disjointed life, his thoughts are punctuated with the sound of the school bell and a boy “whistling a tune, at once very complicated and very simple” (814). Those noises create the offbeat rhythms of syncopation, signature sounds of jazz. The story’s syncopation builds as it takes an unexpected turn when the narrator encounters an old neighborhood friend of Sonny’s, another heroin addict who engages him in a conversation about Sonny’s arrest. That dialogue between the narrator and the junkie leads the narrator’s story back to the newspaper report, while the juke box at a nearby bar “blast[s] away with something black and bouncy” (816).

Along with the story’s syncopation, its polyphony—another defining characteristic of jazz—builds, adding to the story’s voices the words of Sonny, himself, first in the pages of his letter and later in his face-to-face conversations with the narrator. Sonny’s return to New York after the war prompts the narrator to think back on the story of his father witnessing the death of his own brother, a young guitarist run over by a drunken carload of white men. That story, told to the narrator by his mother, introduces not only the voice of his mother but also his father’s voice, indirectly—as well as the scream of the dying brother, the narrator’s uncle, and the guitar strings “flying” (825) as the car rolls over him.

The sounds of the uncle’s gruesome death aren’t the only notes of tragedy sung as the story’s polyphony builds. The narrator’s two-year-old daughter, Grace—whose death makes Sonny’s trouble real—dies from polio: “[T]he reason she hadn’t screamed was that she couldn’t get her breath. And when she did scream, it was the worst sound, Isabel [the narrator’s wife] says, that she’d ever heard in all her life, and she still hears it sometimes in her dreams” (833).

Such tragedies leave little wonder why Sonny or anyone else might turn to music or drugs, or both, as a way, in Sonny’s words, “to keep from shaking to pieces” (837). The link between heroin and jazz is one that Baldwin first makes implicitly, when Sonny mentions Bird (Charlie Parker) to the narrator, who has no idea who Parker is (828). Though Sonny doesn’t refer to Parker’s heroin use, his addiction—as legendary as his musical genius and inextricably tied to it—is likely in the forefront of the minds of many readers who see the parallels between Parker and Sonny.

That implicit connection between music and heroin becomes explicit later in the story when Sonny reflects on the singing voice of the tambourine player at the street revival: “‘When she was singing before,’ said Sonny, abruptly, ‘her voice reminded me for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes—when it’s in your veins. It makes you feel sort of warm and cool at the same time. And distant—and sure’” (836).

In the last pages of the story, the narrator accompanies Sonny to a jazz club downtown, where he listens to him perform. Finally, with that performance, Sonny’s piano and his bandmates’ bass, trumpet, and drums join the polyphonic voices of the narrative. For the narrator, the quartet’s jazz remains a foreign language. In the narrator’s words, “I had the feeling that something had happened, something I hadn’t heard” (843). Yet despite the alien quality of what he hears, the narrator experiences an epiphany in the night club—not about the particular notes he hears, but rather about their aim:

He [Creole] and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell. (843)

With those words, the narrator begins to make meaning—not of Sonny’s particular jazz stylings but of his striving to tell old stories in new ways. The climax of Sonny’s set is also the epiphany of the narrator’s own polyphonic, syncopated, narrative. As the narrator observes of Creole, Sonny’s bandleader, he “seemed to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny’s blues” (843). And as Baldwin’s readers listen, they may say: These are his brother’s blues, too.

Work Cited

Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg, 2016, pp. 813-44.

In “Just One More Game . . . ,” journalist and critic Sam Anderson examines the appeal of hand-held video games—Tetris and its offspring—observing the concurrence of the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and Japanese game-maker Nintendo’s introduction of the Game Boy, the hand-held device that freed gamers to play wherever they chose. No longer were they confined to play within the walls of rec rooms and arcades.

The theme of walls that Anderson introduces in his opening paragraph is one he returns to with considerable effect. So effective is his thematic approach that readers who first encountered his essay in The New York Times Magazine were unlikely to notice the apparent absence of a thesis. However, for students and teachers who are introduced to Anderson’s essay in the pages of The Norton Field Guide to Writing, the choice to present it as a model textual analysis is a puzzling one. In the commentary that follows Anderson’s essay, the textbook’s authors note that “[h]e interprets the ‘gamification’ of American culture positively and provides evidence from experts as well as the games themselves” (110), but what the authors cite as textual evidence from experts are in fact alternate takes on an obsession for which Anderson is clearly ambivalent.

Early in his essay, when Anderson first applies the term “stupid games” to Tetris and its progeny, he notes that he uses that moniker “half descriptively, half out of revenge for all the hours I’ve lost to them” (106). Evidence of Anderson’s love-hate relationship with so-called stupid games recurs in the paragraphs that follow, where he deftly places hand-held games in cultural and historical context, turning to Monopoly, Risk, and Twister as the products of the Great Depression, the Cold War, and the Sexual Revolution, respectively. From those popular, pre-digital games, Anderson shifts his attention back to Tetris, observing that “[i]t was invented exactly when and where you would expect—in a Soviet computer lab in 1984—and its game play reflects this origin” (106). Thus, Anderson illustrates how Tetris, too, is a product of its time and place. But his close examination of Tetris that follows does not function solely to provide more cultural and historical context, it also serves as an opportunity for Anderson to return to his theme of wall-building and to vent the frustration that serves as his refrain:

The enemy in Tetris is not some identifiable villain [. . .] but a faceless, ceaseless, reasonless force that threatens constantly to overwhelm you, a churning production of blocks against which your only defense is a repetitive, meaningless sorting. It is a bureaucracy in pure form, busywork with no aim or end, impossible to avoid or escape. And the game’s final insult is that it annihilates free will. Despite its obvious futility, somehow we can’t make ourselves stop rotating blocks. Tetris, like all the stupid games it spawned, forces us to choose to punish ourselves. (106)

In the second part of his essay, Anderson turns away from the cultural and historical context of games to the perspectives of game designers, not to provide textual evidence for his thesis—which still isn’t clear—but instead to offer points of contrast. In response to game designer Jane McGonigal’s claim that games are “a gateway to our ideal psychological state” (108), Anderson writes that “[a]lthough there is a certain utopian appeal to McGonigal’s ‘games for change’ model, I worry about the dystopic potential of gamification” (109). Anderson contrasts his concerns with the observations of a second game designer, Frank Lantz, noting that he “seem[s] undisturbed by the dark side of stupid games” (109), and pronounces them “far too fragile and complex to be engineered by corporations” (109).

In the final paragraph of his essay, Anderson cites a third game designer, not to support his thesis but, instead, finally, to introduce it. He follows Sid Meier’s definition of a game—“‘a series of interesting choices’” (110)—with his response: “Maybe that’s the secret genius of stupid games: they force us to make a series of interesting choices about what matters most, moment to moment, in our lives” (110). And so he ends his essay with his thesis. Game over.

Fig. 1: Graphic representation of textual analyses (W.W. Norton)

Presenting an additional perspective on games, responding to it, and returning to the theme of wall-building are all effective moves to make in a conclusion and are ones that frequently appear in lists of rhetorical strategies for closure. For that reason, Anderson’s conclusion stands as a valuable model. Yet the essay’s inclusion in The Norton Field Guide to Writing as a model for textual analysis remains troublesome, especially considering the graphic representation for organization that follows. In the graphic for a thematically organized textual analysis (fig. 1, row 1), the thesis appears in the first part of the three-part structure, not in the third part—and certainly not in the last lines of the essay, as Anderson’s does.

His essay is better suited for one of the textbook chapters devoted to mixed-genre writing. There, in Chapter Twenty-one or Sixty-nine, “Just One More Game . . .” could serve an example of an essay that blends the textual analysis essential to many arguments, with the questioning, speculative tone that’s a key feature of reflection. Anderson reflects on stupid games, in his conclusion, realizing that they “are also about a more subtle and mysterious form of wall-building: the internal walls we build to compartmentalize our time, our attention, our lives” (110). Relegating writing to a category, as textbooks do, is another form of wall-building. Pointing out the misplacement of Anderson’s “Just One More Game . . . ” isn’t a call to tear them down but rather an argument for launching Anderson over the wall, angry bird that he is.

Works Cited

Anderson, Sam. “Just One More Game . . . : Angry Birds, Farmville, and Other Hyperaddictive Stupid Games.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. Norton, 2016, pp. 105-110.

Bullock, Richard, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. Commentary. “Just One More Game . . . : Angry Birds, Farmville, and Other Hyperaddictive Stupid Games” by Sam Anderson. The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. Norton, 2016, p. 110.

—. Ways of Organizing a Textual Analysis: A Graphic Representation. The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed. Norton, 2016, p. 123.

On Friday, October 5, students in Professor Kim Stinson’s play production class at Catawba Valley Community College performed a dramatic reading of Sam Quinones’ Dreamland, the 2018-19 Interdisciplinary Campus Read at CVCC.

(L-R) Eljae Roe, Sarah Hawkins, Penny Ly, Jesse Hoke, Zac Howard, Jackson Shoe, Cameron Owens

Moving Dreamland from the page to the stage was no small task for Stinson’s students, but they met the challenge admirably, crafting a compelling dramatization for seven actors. Rather than assigning each actor the role of one of the real-life characters who figures in the book, the actors alternated performing the lines of each passage, evoking the sound of a prose poem and imbuing each story within the larger narrative with multiple voices–an effect that underscored the broad scope of the crisis, emphasizing to the audience that Enrique isn’t the only young Mexican entrepreneur, that David Procter isn’t the only doctor overprescribing painkillers. Theirs are but two of the many stories–and there are the stories of the pharmaceutical pioneers, the narcotics investigators, and the survivors and parents as well.

The unadorned performance space of blackbox theatre provides actors an opportunity to focus on character-driven stories with minimal technical requirements, making Dreamland a model project for such a venue. The seven students who dramatized Dreamland in CVCC’s blackbox theatre brought the audience closer to the people who inhabit Quinones’ book and offered a poignant reminder of how close those stories are to home here in the Catawba Valley, where we find ourselves ranked fifth in the nation in opioid abuse.

In my mind I have traveled back to my tenth-grade English classroom, to a desk where I haven’t sat for more than thirty-five years. Yet despite that temporal distance, parts of that room remain vivid to me: the side-by-side, long, narrow window and back door typical of public high schools built in the early 1970s and the air conditioning unit below the window. It was, in fact, the first public school in our county that was air-conditioned.

The relative smallness of the room seems at odds with the vast worlds of words that opened to me there in the pages of my textbook. I do not remember its title—all of those high-school literature anthologies had the word discovery or horizon in their titles, didn’t they? Though the title escapes me, I can still feel the waxy, uneven texture of the worn cover and the pages softened from semester after semester of students turning to these poems and short stories: “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell, “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, “Grass” by Carl Sandburg, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce, “Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed, and “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats.

Why I recall more of those readings from my sophomore year of high school than I remember from the two years that followed, I do not know. Perhaps those poems and stories remain distinct in my mind because I was just starting to enjoy reading again. Books were my constant companions when I was a child, but in junior high I became too restless and distracted for them.

Along with those works of literature that I encountered for the first time in the pages of my sophomore anthology, I also discovered among them, to my surprise, some lines that I knew very well but didn’t expect to see in a textbook: the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby.” (“Ah, look at all the lonely people / Ah, look at all the lonely people.”)

When Miss Peggy Stanton played “Eleanor Rigby” for us, I thought that she, my staid, middle-aged teacher (probably younger then than I am now) was antithetical to the screaming teenage girls in the footage of Beatles concerts. Miss Stanton was a woman of quiet strength. Childhood polio had left one of her legs shorter than the other, and she wore one shoe with a very thick sole to minimize her limp. I was so fascinated by her physical imbalance, I began to imagine her as a fictional character, a spinster school teacher whose brilliant mind compensated for her impairment.

As I sat in her class and listened to the words of “Eleanor Rigby,” I thought of my own loneliness. I dwelled on its particulars then, not old enough yet to understand that it wasn’t mine alone. But I began to understand something about the universality of our particular human struggles and began to develop my capacity for empathy in those days in Miss Stanton’s class, especially on the days when we turned in our textbook to the pages of Twelve Angry Men.

Though I may have seen the Henry Fonda film before I read the play, my first memory of Twelve Angry Men is reading it aloud in Miss Stanton’s class. I don’t remember which juror I was asked to read. What I remember clearly is holding one firm belief about the nineteen-year-old boy on trial for murdering his father and gradually realizing that what I had viewed as facts were merely suppositions, and that reasonable doubt warranted a verdict of not guilty.

Unlike the other works of literature that I’d read in English class, Twelve Angry Men didn’t dazzle me with poetic language or character development. The jurors spoke plainly. They were numbers without names. But when Juror Eight led his peers to question their assumptions, he led me to question mine. When I was a high school student in the early 1980s, critical thinking wasn’t the pervasive term that it is now in conversations about education. But that’s exactly what I was doing: thinking critically. And I was developing my capacity for empathy as I witnessed Juror Nine explain why he identified with one of the witnesses, an old man whose credibility is called into question:

I think I know him better than anyone here. This is a quiet, frightened, insignificant, old man who has been nothing all his life, who has never had recognition, his name in the newspapers. Nobody knows him, nobody quotes him, nobody seeks his advice after seventy-five years. That’s a very sad thing, to be nothing. A man like this needs to be recognized, to be listened to, to be quoted just once. This is very important. It would be so hard for him to recede in the background . . . . (Rose 36)

That old man was Eleanor Rigby, and so was Juror Nine.

Now, so many years later, I find myself revisiting the play as a reader of a different sort. I am sitting with its lines before me on three-by-five index cards, part of the line-learning ritual that I adopted when I returned to acting in my forties. Back in that tenth-grade classroom, 188 miles and decades away, I see that fifteen-year-old version of myself who had just started acting a year earlier. I am a stranger to her. I, this woman she would become, who would turn away from acting—to focus on college, and teaching, and writing—and then turn back to acting, and fall in love with it all over again, decades later.

As I study my lines, I continue to reflect on first reading Twelve Angry Men and on “Eleanor Rigby,” the two inextricably yoked in my mind—not only because I read them both my sophomore year but also because of their music. In the twelve jurors of Rose’s play, I hear the violins, violas, and cellos of “Eleanor Rigby.” And to be one of Rose’s players, to carry the music of a juror’s voice from page to stage, makes my heart sing.

Works Cited

Lennon, John and Paul McCartney. “Eleanor Rigby.” Revolver. Capitol, 1966.

Rose, Reginald. Twelve Angry Jurors. 1954. Penguin, 2006.

Eight of the twenty poems selected for the upcoming Art of Poetry event at the Hickory Museum of Art were written by students of mine at Catawba Valley Community College. Congratulations to Jaycey Deal, Jason Dunford, Brianna Friday, Ethan Hoge, Morgan Jenkins, Mikaya Parsons, Abby Rodriguez-Meneses, and Samantha Stephens. Please join us at the museum next Saturday at 2 p.m. for a tour of the exhibits accompanied by readings of the poems inspired by the paintings and sculptures on display.

 

In “The Fashion Industry: Free to Be an Individual,” one of the sample student essays in The Norton Field Guide to Writing, Hannah Berry analyzes two magazine advertisements for shoes—one for Clarks and one for Sorel—which she claims “encourage us to break free from the standard beauty mold and be ourselves” (95). While Berry’s examination of the ads often demonstrates an impressive eye for detail, at times her descriptions fall short, and what she cites as “confident individuality” (95) departs from the clichés of advertising only in superficial ways.

Fig. 1 Clarks Ad (Clarks)

The ad for Clarks (fig. 1) features a young woman in profile playing what Berry refers to as “some kind of trumpet” (95). The vagueness of her description seems inexplicable considering the ease with which anyone with internet access can now conduct a quick image search for brass instruments, or anything else, to find a name in question. In addition to forgoing a quick search for the identity of the instrument, Berry does not explore why the ad’s designers may have chosen a marching euphonium rather than a smaller B-flat trumpet or cornet for the model to hold.

Posing the model with a larger horn—one longer than her torso—makes her look diminutive, as if she is a child playing a grown-up’s trumpet. The fringed ankle socks she wears, typically worn by little girls rather than women, further accentuate her childlike quality. Though her adult French twist hairstyle and suede high-heels might counter the girlish elements in the ad, instead the incongruity creates a curious mix that evokes band nerd less than latter-day Lolita—not a “unique personality [raised] onto a pedestal” (95), as Berry observes, but rather an unsettling male fantasy à la Humbert Humbert.

Fig. 2 Sorel Ad (Sorel)

In contrast to the childlike woman atop a pedestal, the model in the Sorel ad (fig. 2) appears to have no tolerance for the romantic notions of chivalric code. If she were asked to stand on a pedestal, she might shoot it instead. Rifle in hand, she sits in a gilt chair, with one foot propped on a crystal chandelier—one that she presumably shot down from the ceiling only moments earlier. (Witness the plaster dust in the air above the wreckage.) Ostensibly, the focal point of the ad is her footwear, a devil-red, fur-trimmed variation on the classic L. L. Bean Maine Hunting Shoe. But in fact those boots lead the viewers’ eyes to her bare legs, untouched by the plaster dust that powders the floor directly beneath them. Conveniently, she is not sullied by the destruction but appears instead clean and carefully posed, the skirt of her dress raised and pushed aside to reveal her upper thighs. Along with her thighs, the feathers on the shoulder of her dress indicate—whether intentionally or not—that she is prey as well as predator. The centrality of her legs in the ad serves not to highlight her individuality but rather to objectify her.

The legs of the woman in the Clarks ad figure prominently as well. Though she is modestly attired, her little black dress elongates and emphasizes her model-thin legs, and its A-line skirt echoes the bell shape of the horn—as if, perhaps, she is something else to be played.

Along with the impressive eye for detail that Berry’s analysis demonstrates, her essay is admirable for its structure; it gracefully moves from introduction, to thesis, to description and analysis of each ad. Those aspects alone warrant her essay’s inclusion in The Norton Field Guide to Writing. But it’s a valuable model for another reason as well. As Berry writes that the “purity” signified by the model’s white dress is “completely contradicted by the way she wears it” (97), she reveals the contradiction inherent in her own assessment. Rather than depicting the woman as an individual, the ad objectifies her in typical Madison Avenue fashion. And that discrepancy in Berry’s analysis offers students a possible starting point for their own textual analyses.

Works Cited

Berry, Hannah. “The Fashion Industry: Free to Be an Individual.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg, 2016, pp. 94-99.

Clarks. Advertisement. Lucky. Sept. 2011, p. 55.

Sorel. Advertisement. Lucky. Sept. 2011, p. 65.

Wordplay Day

Posted: September 24, 2018 in Teaching

Scrabble Retro Edition

Later this morning, the students in my 8 o’clock class will tear the plastic from these retro-edition Scrabble sets and begin Wordplay Day, a new feature in my classes this semester. Once every two weeks, the students will play Scrabble in teams of two to foster collaboration, along with boosting their word power and creative problem-solving skills. Let the games (and the learning) begin!

As a young child, I was mystified by my parents’ interest in estate auctions. Though the auctioneer’s chant intrigued me, I could no more understand his rapid-fire bid-calling than I could my parents’–and all of the other adults’–inclination to stand stock-still in the blazing sun, raising their hands only occasionally to signal a bid.

Once when I had endured standing for as long as I could, I wandered away from my parents and climbed atop one of the tables. For me, it simply offered a respite from standing; I didn’t think of it as a sale table. But when my mother appeared before me a few minutes later, she said, “The auctioneer’s going to sell everything on this table. If you don’t climb down, he will sell you, too.”

As I remember those words of my mother’s now, I can almost feel the splinters burrowing in my palm as I pushed myself away from the point of purchase. Though I had contemplated life with other parents, the ones that I had were tolerable, and I had no desire to be sold to the highest bidder.

I never became an auction-goer, but I share my parents’ fascination with objects from the past. And I can trace the allure of artifacts back to those outings with them. Rather than standing and listening to an auction chant, I prefer the quiet pastime of browsing the shelves of antique shops and thrift stores. What appeals to me about such excursions is the possibility of the unexpected find: most recently a set of wooden letter blocks at Picket Fence Antiques, and earlier a chair from The Crow’s Nest and a student desk from Diversity Thrift (all of which are pictured here).

For me, the serendipity that comes with thrifting and antiquing is akin to the discoveries of the writing process. Though the journey doesn’t always lead to unexpected treasures, when I persist–whether as a browser or a writer–I eventually find something of value that I did not seek.