Dear Readers, Deserving Strangers

Posted: December 2, 2019 in Teaching, Writing
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More than twenty years ago, in August of 1997, National Public Radio’s Morning Edition featured a story about Nancy Johnson, a second- and third-grade teacher who gave her students the assignment of writing letters to themselves, letters that covered such details as “their favorite toys, what makes them different from other kids and what they want to do in the future” (Morning par. 1). Johnson collected the letters and mailed them back to her pupils at the end of their senior year of high school. As I pictured Nancy Johnson’s eighteen-year-old students reading the words written by their seven- and eight-year-old selves, I began wondering how I might create a similar letter-writing experience for my college students. Following Johnson’s model wouldn’t be practical. My students’ addresses would change repeatedly throughout their twenties; I doubted that many of their letters would find their way back to them. Rather than requiring pieces of writing that might end up at the dead letter office, I crafted an alternate assignment. I required my students to write to themselves at the beginning of the semester, and I returned their letters to them on the last day of class.

Eventually I revised that assignment. Instead of requiring students to write letters to themselves, I required them to write snail mail. After I moved from Winston-Salem to Richmond, I shelved the letter-writing assignment for a while because of the increased emphasis on technology in the curriculum. But after a few years at Virginia Commonwealth University, I resurrected the assignment. I’d been meditating on how submitting assignments electronically—as students were and are with greater frequency—did not require the degree of preparedness that paper submissions demand. Around the time I began requiring both paper and digital copies of my students’ revised essays, I also began requiring them to submit mail-ready letters (addressed, stamped, and sealed) at the beginning of class once a month. Students’ initial reactions to the assignment have always been mixed. Many wonder why anyone would bother to put pen to paper when texting is far more efficient.

Whether students are resistant to snail mail or embrace its old-school charm, they are often surprised to discover how much the recipients appreciate their letters, which is another way of demonstrating how much their written words can matter. Back when I was completing my last semester of teaching at Salem College, one of my students told me that her mother wanted to thank me for requiring my students to write monthly letters. She had a record of her daughter’s first year of college that she wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t required her daughter and her classmates to write letters. Just as that mother was grateful for that written account of her daughter’s first months of college, many recipients of my students’ letters are undoubtedly grateful to find letters in their mailboxes, but over the years fewer and fewer of my students have received snail mail in return. Instead, they find a word of thanks in an email or a text message.

I was thinking about that last spring—how few of my students receive snail mail and how I wished more of them received replies—when it occurred to me that retirement communities offered potential pen pals—people who might not only welcome snail mail from college students but who might also write them back.  Margaret Shepherd, author of The Art of the Handwritten Note, recommends that if you don’t know whom to write snail mail to, “reach out to deserving strangers” (qtd. in Shain par. 22). With that in mind, I phoned the activities director at Abernethy Laurels, a nearby retirement community, and made a proposal: If my students wrote letters to potential pen pals there, would she provide the residents with an opportunity to write back? The activities director liked the idea but expressed concern about the residents’ privacy. What if the students addressed the letters to “Dear Reader” and I mailed them all in one large envelope? I asked. I suggested that she could send the replies the same way; the residents wouldn’t have to include their last names.

We ended our phone conversation with the promise to finalize our plans late in the summer. That’s when I would be able to tell her approximately how many students would be writing letters to her residents—or at least I thought I would. Instead, my teaching schedule changed twice in the days leading up to the beginning of the semester. Rather than teaching two sections of English 111, I would teach three, two of which were flex-start classes: ones that begin two weeks into the semester (and run for one hour and thirty-six minutes rather than one hour and twenty). One of the two flex-start sections would begin the Thursday before Labor Day; the other would start the following Wednesday.

Teaching two flex-start classes meant my students would compose their letters later in September than I’d planned, and the activities director would receive more letters than she anticipated. When the students composed their letters in class, some asked when they would receive a reply. I could only tell them, I don’t know when you will, or if you will. After a month passed and I hadn’t heard from Abernethy Laurels, it occurred to me that the activities director may have been overwhelmed by the number of letters she received, forty-one in all. And what if the residents didn’t want to write back? Or what if some wanted to reply, but couldn’t? I imagined the activities director transcribing letter after letter for residents with arthritic hands. If I had given her a formidable task, I didn’t want her to feel compelled to complete it. If I phoned or emailed to request an update, I might put her in an awkward position. So I waited until the first week of November to email her. She replied that the residents had responded to thirty-five of the letters and would soon complete responses to the remaining six.

Less than a week later, I received an envelope containing forty-one letters, one for each of the students who had written to a potential pen pal at Abernethy Laurels. How can I describe the feeling of beginning class the next morning with mail call, of handing students pieces of writing that weren’t assignments annotated with my ink but words of introduction from potential pen pals, people with whom they may correspond for years to come? As the students read their letters, their eyes lit up. Occasionally a student would stop and read a line aloud. That’s all I know of the contents of those letters. That’s all I need to know. I could read the gratitude in their faces. I didn’t need to read the words on the page to know that it’s an assignment worth repeating.

Works Cited

“3rd Grade Letters/Revisited.” Morning Edition. 28 Aug. 1997. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1027990. Accessed 1 December 2019.

Shain, Susan. “We Could All Use a Little Snail Mail Right Now.” The New York Times. 8. Oct. 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/08/smarter-living/we-could-all-use-a-little-snail-mail-right-now.html. Accessed 1 Dec. 2019.

 

What makes a book a page-turner? If it’s fiction, it’s the narrative arc. If it’s nonfiction, it’s the same arc imposed on truths that are stranger than the lies of novels. Tara Westover’s Educated is a case in point. In the chapter where she recounts performing the title role in the musical Annie, the prevailing image of the teenage Tara is not one of herself, but rather Tara as the iconic orphan, her “brown hair [dyed] cherry red” (86). By depicting herself as that fictional heroine in a chapter that ends with Y2K, Westover creates a rags-to-riches narrative in miniature, a nesting doll within the larger Cinderella story of the memoir.

At the beginning of the chapter, as Tara rehearses for Annie, the source of tension that drives the narrative is her father’s obsession with preparing for what he proclaims will be the post-Y2K chaos that will usher in the Second Coming of Christ. Gene Westover’s adherence to Y2K conspiracy theories and his distrust of doctors and public schools set Tara apart from the other teenagers in rehearsal. The Worm Creek Opera House, like the ball in Cinderella, is another world, where the words people spoke “seemed ripped from another reality” (86).

From her father’s obsession with Y2K, the source of tension in the chapter shifts to the obstacle that presents itself when Tara learns from the director that she must provide her own costumes. The old, tattered clothes that Annie wears as an orphan in Act I are a cinch to find in the Westovers’ basement, but in Act II Tara must take the stage in the beautiful dresses that Daddy Warbucks, Annie’s millionaire benefactor, buys for her. Lacking the dresses that she needs sends Tara and her mother on a search—a heroine’s quest—for suitable ones. Westover recounts that she and her mother drive one-hundred miles round-trip, scouring every second-hand store to no avail. It seems that Tara will have no gown for the ball, but her mother devises another plan as a last resort: She drives Tara to Aunt Angie’s house, where Angie loans Tara some of her daughter’s Sunday dresses. Helping Tara try on the fancy dresses, “knotting the sashes, fastening the buttons, plumping the bows” (87), Aunt Angie becomes the fairy godmother of the moment, setting Tara back on her path.

Annie isn’t the only stage role Tara plays, but it’s the only one Westover describes in her memoir; she doesn’t even mention the others by name. They remain the unnamed characters in “the next play” and “the one after that” (87). By limiting the depiction of her theatre life to Little Orphan Annie, Westover leaves readers with the image of her as the scrappy heroine whose rags-to-riches narrative parallels her own story as well as Cinderella’s. And the last pages of the chapter present another link to the girl with the glass slipper. In both stories, the heroine believes that the world will change at midnight. But in Educated Gene Westover’s delusions are the real fairy tale. After 2000 arrives without incident, Tara looks at her father watching television in the dark, noting that “[h]e seemed smaller to me than he had that morning” (91).

In Bruno Bettelheim’s classic study of fairy tales, he observes that “[i]f Cinderella is to become master of her own fate, her parents’ authority must be diminished” (257). Readers of Educated see that parental authority diminish as Tara watches her father become smaller in her eyes—as parents, both real and imagined, often do. Westover’s readers enter the terrain of Buck’s Peak knowing that the perils of an abusive brother, a paranoid, delusional father, and a three-ton pair of scissors aren’t the exaggerated obstacles of a fairy tale or comic strip. Instead they’re genuine threats in a hard-knock life that Tara only narrowly escapes. She doesn’t live happily ever after, but she does achieve an education and a sense of self—if not a sense of peace.

Works Cited

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. 1976. Knopf, 1977.

Westover, Tara. Educated. Random, 2018.

I wrote my first research paper in seventh grade. All of us in Mr. Lord’s English class were required to select a subject of our choice, perhaps the subject had to be a historical figure. Whatever the case, I chose Albert Einstein. I remember sitting at the small, drop-front desk in my bedroom, printing sentence after sentence on three-by-five index cards. Mr. Lord had told us in class that we should limit each card to one fact. One of my most vivid memories of that project is the sight of my large, uneven letters spilling over onto the back of the cards. What I construed as one fact wouldn’t fit on one side.

I was probably as unclear about what constituted a single fact as I was about the goal of the assignment itself. I knew that I was conducting research on a scientific genius, but what was my writing supposed to do?

In the process of writing too many words on my index cards, I came across this detail that stopped me in my tracks: When Einstein was a young child, he was perceived as slow-witted. It seemed preposterous that anyone could believe that the theoretical physicist who developed the theory of relativity was stupid; however, I was also aware of the discrepancy between appearance and reality. I didn’t think that I was the same person that others saw when they looked at me. I imagined, as perhaps all adolescents do, that I would never be truly understood, just as I would never truly understand what I was supposed to write about Albert Einstein.

A little more than ten years later, I was walking across the main quad at Hollins College when Professor Dillard stopped me and told me that my paper on The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis was one of the best analyses he’d ever read by a student. Stunned and pleased, I thanked him, thinking of how the process of writing that essay had felt different to me, as if something that I needed to achieve in a piece of academic writing had slowly come into focus. I was a graduate student in creative writing then, so most of my writing for my courses was fiction. Yet the years of studying literature and criticism as an undergraduate had led me to an understanding that somehow only surfaced when I wrote that essay for Professor Dillard.

My next breakthrough came about four years later, when the process of writing became more than the act of fulfilling an assignment for a Ph.D. seminar. I was reading studies of contemporary Southern writing and sensed that something was missing. That something was my own analysis:

In The Southern Writer and the Postmodern World, Fred Hobson tags Bobbie Ann Mason “not so much a New South as a No South writer” (81), limiting his discussion of Mason’s work to In Country’s Samantha Hughes. . . . What Hobson refers to in Mason’s characters as a “relative lack of southern self-consciousness” (6), though, is not evident in her other work. (Meekins 147)

As I wrote, I was witnessing for the first time how I could develop scholarship of my own by placing myself in conversation with other scholars, such as Fred Hobson.

Now as I revisit research writing with my students, I am reminded of why the study of imaginative literature, Southern or not, continues to appeal to me twenty-five years after I wrote that paper. As I read in our textbook that the purpose of humanities is “to explore and analyze aspects of the human experience” (Bullock et al. 307), I think of how the ways that writers continue to retell our stories is a source of never-ending fascination for me. I hope that in the process of reflecting on their own research, my students find their own sources of never-ending fascination, too—or at least begin to see their research as more than a course requirement. When they encounter unfamiliar words, I hope they’ll keep reading, as Tara Westover did. In her memoir, Educated, she writes of learning to study by mimicking her brother Tyler. In her words, “[t]he skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand” (62). In retrospect, I realize that’s what I was doing forty years ago when I sat at my drop-front desk writing too many words on my note cards. Only now I understand.

Works Cited

Bullock, Richard et al. Chapter 24: “Reading Across Fields of Study.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 5th ed. Norton, 2019. pp. 291-93.

Hobson, Fred. The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World. University of Georgia Press, 1991.

Meekins, Beth. “Lost in the Laughing Place: Notes on the Postmodern Postsouthern Condition.” The Black Warrior Review, vol. 20, no. 2, 1994. pp. 146-59.*

Westover, Tara. Educated. Random, 2018.

*The essay “Lost in the Laughing Place” was published five years before I married and three years before I began using my first name rather my nickname, hence the byline Beth Meekins rather than Jane Lucas.

A Lust for Lists

Posted: August 23, 2019 in Reading, Teaching, Writing

This semester I created a new introductory assignment for my students in English 112: Writing and Research in the Disciplines. The idea came to me while I was thinking about the work involved in producing a bibliography. That gathering and compiling of sources, an essential part of the research process, is a tedious undertaking for many students. Yet list-making, itself, is something that many of us turn to in discussions of our favorite things. Think Maria von Trapp and Oprah. The list could go on.

It occurred to me that such lists could serve as introductions, getting-to-know-you opportunities that would also offer practice in compiling MLA-style bibliographies, discographies, filmographies, and TVographies.

Creating lists of their favorite things—whether books, music, films, or TV series—may make the process of producing citations less dull. I hope it does. Even if it doesn’t, the lists will offer us starting points for conversations about some unfamiliar things that may someday join our own lists of favorites.

For my top-five list, I chose my favorite Common Reads—or as some schools call them, Campus Reads or Interdisciplinary Reads. I have these books on my brain because I’m currently teaching Tara Westover’s memoir Educated, this year’s Interdisciplinary Read at Catawba Valley Community College. As I meditate on Tara Westover’s book, my thoughts turn to how her memoir differs from other Common Reads that I’ve studied with my students.

Exploring a single book, such as Westover’s, over the course of a semester bears witness to the volumes we can learn about writing through the slow, careful study of well-wrought prose. When the pages are only slightly more familiar to me than they are to my students—which has been the case with every Common Read that I’ve taught—the experience has enabled me to model the pursuit of lifelong learning that I aim to foster in my students.

Bibliography

Quinones, Sam. Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opioid Epidemic. 2015. Bloomsbury, 2016.

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Crown, 2010.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus. 1991. Pantheon, 1992.

Westover, Tara. Educated. Random, 2018.

Whitehead, Colson. Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2016.

When I saw Corey Mitchell’s picture posted on Facebook, I was reminded of how familiar he seemed to me. That was back in July, not long after the Hickory Community Theatre announced that he would direct the musical Hair. The show would open in September, which was still a spot in the distance back in mid-July. I was unpacking stacks of boxes, ones that had sat untouched in my house since 2013. After our lives were upended in 2012–when my husband was laid off–we relocated from Richmond, Virginia, to a house in Lenoir–a Dutch Colonial Revival that for all its beauty lacked the storage space provided by a two-car garage and a partially finished basement. The contents of my husband’s cubicle in Richmond had already found a home: the office of the newspaper editor (the job that had brought us to Lenoir). The shelves of books and drawers of files that had filled my own office towered precariously like a cardboard city in what was supposed to be the guest bedroom. Instead it was one of those rooms that you hope guests will never see.

 

Then after five years as an adjunct, I was offered a full-time teaching job. I had my own office again but not the time to move into it. So after the school year ended in May, I began to unpack the artifacts of my buried life and transport them to campus. As I opened box after box, fragments of those earlier years of teaching reentered my consciousness, including the image of a young man who appeared in my mind as a decades-younger version of Corey Mitchell, a young man I’d taught at UNC-Wilmington. Hadn’t I read that Corey had graduated from UNCW?–and didn’t I teach a Mitchell there?

Not long after that–a couple of days later, perhaps–I opened a box that contained all of my old grade books, all the way back to the first semester I taught, as a grad student, back in 1990. The gradebook that I used two years later at UNCW was the oldest in the stack, one passed down to me by my parents, an unused one pulled from one of their own file cabinets after they retired. The column for student names in that vintage Hall’s Class Record Book was so narrow that only the last names fit. I found what I was looking for between Lofton and Onuffer: Mitchell. I was relatively certain that it was Corey.

As the director of Hair at HCT, Corey was working closely with the theatre’s Artistic Director, Pam Livingstone, whom I knew from my own stage work there, so I sent her this email:

Corey Mitchell has looked familiar to me since I saw his face on the Tonys and in the news back in 2015, now I may know why. I read recently that he’s a graduate of UNC-Wilmington. I taught there for the 1991-92 school year before moving to Tallahassee to begin my PhD work.

The last class that I taught at UNCW was a four-week summer survey of American literature. When you teach a class of thirty-seven students for only a month, you don’t remember much about  them 25-plus years later. But I do remember a highly intelligent, charismatic, deep-voiced young man who was clearly going places, Today I found my gradebook from that year. I didn’t record the students’ first names, but ‘Mitchell’ is there, and I think it’s Corey.

Would you please ask him when he attended UNCW? If he was my student, I would like to speak with him briefly before one of the rehearsals.

Pam answered, yes, it was Corey, and he came into sharper focus. I could see him sitting in my office. He was wearing a hat. He often wore a hat. I began to remember part of a conversation we’d had. I emailed him to recount how he’d spoken with me about his admiration for Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll.”
Today, a month after I found his name in that old gradebook, I went to HCT’s rehearsal hall to surprise him with a brief pre-rehearsal visit. I chose today because it was my first day of teaching for the fall semester. Today I met thirty-seven of the one-hundred-plus students who will teach me this semester–as Corey taught me–as much, if not more, than I will teach them.

After I introduced myself to Corey, he invited me to sit down. He remembered reading an excerpt from The Joy Luck Club in my American literature survey course. He had enjoyed that chapter of Tan’s novel so much that he bought a copy of the book. Was her novel the subject of that outstanding oral presentation that he delivered? As he spoke with me, he demonstrated the attentiveness that the best teachers possess. That attentiveness is one of the many qualities that led Corey to win the first Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre Education back in 2015.

His devotion to his students at Charlotte’s Northwest School of the Arts is chronicled in the 2015 documentary Purple Dreams, which traces his students’ lives–both on and off stage–as they rehearse and perform the musical The Color Purple, an enormously ambitious project for which their school raised over $170,000  “to take 107 people–cast, crew and orchestra–and rent the original Broadway set and costumes to perform at the International Thespian Festival two years ago [in 2013] in Nebraska” (Toppman par. 9).

In my email to Corey, I wrote: “As a teacher, I am always grateful to witness my students’ achievements in the classroom and beyond. Congratulations for all that you have accomplished, and thank you for all that you have given back.” I tried to say that again tonight as I left the rehearsal hall, but what came out was simply “I’m so proud of you!”

As I drove home, my thoughts turned to one of Stephen Sondheim’s anecdotes about his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein:

Just before he [Hammerstein] died, he gave me a picture of himself, and I asked him to inscribe it, which is sort of odd because he was a surrogate father to me. It’s like asking your father to inscribe a picture. He thought for a minute and was clearly a little embarrassed. Then he got a smile on his face like the cat had just eaten the cream. And he wrote something. And when he left the room, I read it. And it said, ‘For Stevie, my friend and teacher.’

Corey, this former teacher of yours, just three years your senior, isn’t your mentor or your surrogate mother. But these reflections are a portrait inscribed to you, “To my teacher.”


Lucas, Jane. “Corey Mitchell.” Received by Pamela Livingstone. 15 July 2019.

—. “Greetings from a Proud Teacher.” Received by Corey Mitchell. 17 July 2019.

Sondheim, Stephen. “To Me, Teaching is a Sacred Profession.” Sondheim on Sondheim. P.S. Classics, 2010.

Toppman,  Lawrence. “Charlotte Teacher Wins Tony Award.” Charlotteobserver.com, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/entertainment/article23101743.html. Accessed 15 Aug. 2015.

Ordinarily I don’t blog about a book until I’ve finished it, but John Warner’s spot-on observations on the crafts of writing and acting prompted me to pause in my reading and share this passage:

Imagine an acting school where rather than helping students develop the individual skills of building a performance, students are required to learn a series of impressions of genuine actors performing a role. Deniro 101 would cover Travis Bickle and the father in Meet the Parents, for example. Meryl Streep’s various performances would be 400-level, no doubt. Our aspiring actors would be graded on 45-second snippet imitations, judged on how accurate they are to the standard set in the original performance.

But what happens when our young thespians are tasked with a role they haven’t learned to mimic, a performance that doesn’t yet exist?

This is how we teach students to write. Don’t be a writer, we tell them, just do some things that make it look like you know how to write. And when in doubt, at least sound smart by using words like ubiquitous and plethora. If you really want to show off, try myriad.

And when students wind up in college in classes like mine and I tell them the game had changed, that in fact it isn’t a game at all, students feel like someone has played a cruel trick. Each successive cohort seems less prepared for the challenges of my college-writing class than the last, not because they’re getting less intelligent, or don’t want to learn, or have been warped by the ‘everyone-gets-a-trophy’ culture, but because they have been incentivized to create imitations rather than the genuine article. (6-7)

As a writer and actor, I often reflect on the similarities between creating for the stage and the page, but it never before occurred to me to convey to my students what now seems vital to their instruction: how self-conscious artifice makes both writing and acting fall flat.

In the first chapter of Why They Can’t Write, John Warner has given me a new insight to share with my students. And no doubt he’ll give me more before I finish reading.

Work Cited

Warner, John. Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Johns Hopkins U., 2018. pp. 6-7.

John Warner teaches writing at the College of Charleston, and his blog “Just Visiting” is featured twice weekly in Inside Higher Education.  From 2003-2008 he edited McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

J.M.W. Turner's "The Slave Ship" (1840) / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

J.M.W. Turner’s “The Slave Ship” (1840) / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

At first glance, the painting The Slave Ship seems primarily a showcase for the artist J.M.W. Turner’s use of light and color. But the painting’s title, its subtitle, and closer inspection of its details reveal that Ruskin’s painting speaks to the  consequences of slavery and oppression, as well as the ways in which we depict such injustices. Readers who encounter The Slave Ship in conjunction with other Victorian-age literature may be reminded not only of the words of John Ruskin–once owner of the painting, who described its “awful but glorious light” (385)–but also of the realization by Frankenstein’s monster that without money or social status, he was considered a “vagabond and a slave” (Shelley 107).

In addition to expressing the sentiments of nineteenth-century slaves and abolitionists, Shelley’s words echo those of her mother, pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. When the monster recounts Saphie’s education, he observes how “[t]he young girl spoke in high and enthusiastic terms of her mother, who, born in freedom spurned the bondage of which she was now reduced. She instructed her daughters in the tenets of her religion [Christianity], and taught her to aspire to higher levels of intellect, and an independent spirit, forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet” (110).

Works Cited

Ruskin, John. Excerpt from “The Slave Ship.” The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Age. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W. W. Norton, 2017. p. C1.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Introduction and Notes by Karen Karbiener. Barnes and Noble, 2003.

Turner, J.M.W., Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying–Typhoon Coming On). The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Age. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W. W. Norton, 2017. p. 385.