I started a career in journalism when I was a teacher. I always had enjoyed writing, and serving as the editor of my high school newspaper whetted my appetite for publishing my every thought…and believing the world better for it.
One day I was teaching a writing class when the voices in my head (it turns out okay) whispered that I was a hypocrite. How can I teach writing when I haven’t published since before I finished even my undergraduate degree. Why does everyone (Wrongly. Quite wrongly.) believe that all English teachers are qualified to teach and judge writing. Even before I wrote a “Learning Language Through the Newspaper” (under a different name) other English teachers told me that they were reluctant to write a note to me. One said that she was intimidated because I was stickler for grammar.
Before anyone hastens to note that I already have used several sentence fragments and violated numerous rules of grammar in this piece, let me add that I also believe that once was has mastered good grammar, he has permission to violate whatever rules he chooses for impact or effect.
All of the preceding is to say that my feelings of inadequacy—or charlatanism—drove me to submit a few articles to local newspapers, which prompted an editor to offer me a regular spot on the opinion page. For 15 years, I wrote opinions that called down the wrath of pretty much every faction, sect, ethnicity or nationality. For example, at a time when I was raising and supporting two students, one from Mexico and one from El Salvador, a colleague who was married to a Latino wrote a letter to the editor accusing me in the harshest terms of being anti-Hispanic as evidenced by a recent column.
A column I wrote about the extraordinary number of teen-age mothers or mothers-to-be drew unwonted vitriol. For example, I noted that teen-age mothers and mothers to be often used pregnancy or their babies as a reason that they should not be held accountable for excessive absences or for not turning in work. The high school, T.C. Williams (Yes, “Remember the Titans”) in Alexandria had support groups and parenting classes, both of which are good, but they were conducted during the school day which made keeping up even more difficult and further hindered attendance.
One teacher who had a class for single mothers and mothers-to-be read them the offending column and told her students that they should let me know how angry they were. Imagine my surprise when a gang of pregnant girls pounded on my door during class and proceeded to berate me in loud and profane voices for the error of my thinking.
Let’s hear it for the wisdom and judgment of teachers and the teenagers who interrupt a lesson to teach me about respect.
Another teacher told his students to write me letters to express their displeasure. And that brings us to this juncture.
I have chosen some excerpts to share. Although they require little comment, I find it hard to resist. Keep in mind that for many years I was a single parent who also “parented” more than 40 kids, abused, cast out, illegal (shh); kids who had nowhere else to go showed up at my door. Word spread among the kids and the school social worker started to bring them by. Eventually, social services asked me if I would take formal placements as well. My qualifications were that I lived near the school and don’t know how to say no. But, I was not naive.
So, on with the show: The names are fictitious; the quotations are unchanged. I am not using sic to indicate that each error in grammar, spelling or syntax is exactly as written, because doing so would double the length of this essay.
Melissa cut directly to the central issue: “I don’t think any man should be critisying a women when she gets pregnant when its not all the womens fault anyway. Were not walking around the street one day, trip, + all of a sudden were pregnant.”
At a rough count, I found eight serious issues with the two sentences. Now, my point is not only that the writer seems to concede at least partial responsibility for her pregnancy—at least that she is aware that it is not solely the result of tripping—but also that the exercise might have been more beneficial if the teacher had used it as, let’s say, a teaching moment. How does one construct an argument? How does one support one’s thesis? How does one proofread? I submit that the sole purpose of the exercise was to give me what for. (I don’t pretend to truly understand that expression, but it seems to work here.) She went on:
“Where I come from a reporter stated the facts. If I knew when I moved to virginia that you let anyone with half a brain write a article I would of taken more English + writing classes.”
Now, given that I think the “half a brain” assessment is too generous for her, I would like to explain the difference between a reporter and an opinion columnist. Apparently no one else had. In doing so, I add that I generally made two or three points in an introduction, supported them in ensuing paragraphs, and concluded with summarizing how my points support my hypotheses, preferably with a clever or provocative closing sentence.
Shantel said, “If you get pregnant…you should suffer the consequences [which is how I always refer to my children: “Come sit on Papa’s knee, my insufferable consequence.”], don’t uses your being pregnant as an excuse in life or you will ever suceed.”
Okay, writing prowess could use some punching up, but at least she seems to agree with my premise.
She continued: “As far as mothers being irresponsible [Do you feel the uh-oh coming?] I think that you are more ignorant than I expected.” [Ummm. Yeah.] I assumed that you knew it take two to make a baby [I do: and in many, nay most cases of unwed single mothers, too much unsupervised time; too few morals and character lessons; too much attention to hormones and too little to judgment.] What about all those guys that are making…[Okay, I did not need to know that she thinks it requires “all those guys.” One will do…and probably with great alacrity.] Before you can talk about all the mommies in the world, you need to know everybodies situation.”
Right. If I start interviewing now, I might know “everybodies” situation in…Oh, dear, more will keep being born as I work my way around the globe. Never mind. I’ll never be able to talk about “all the mommies in the world.”
However, I will grant that girls were not getting pregnant without a male accomplice somewhere along the line, and lest I appear to be targeting girls—the original article after all was about schools nurturing irresponsibility—let me add a word of contempt for the unwed fathers: I knew a high school senior who had fathered six children by six different mothers. He and another chum (and they would serve humanity better as such] were in a competition to see who could sire the most children by different mothers. They were not alone. I found that most boys were quite proud of their demonstrable virility and the manifestations of their masculinity popping up like tulips in the spring all over town.
Let me also say that I am aware of the conditions that sometimes make kids—and adults—seek love, or least intimacy, wherever they can find it. That is why adults—parents, teachers, clergy, Scout leaders, neighbors—have the responsibility to help children and teenagers to understand self-discipline and responsibility.
Warning: soap box ahead.
Every time a student who has done nothing to meet class requirements is passed on to the next grade, every time we focus on making teenagers feel good about making their bad decisions because it is more important to validate their feelings of self-worth than it is to teach them that doing it because they want to or it feels good is not always in their best interest, we fail. Sure, it is easier for us to go give in—schools have done that for one thing after another so that any standards that remain are artificial and typically unrelated to real life success afterward.
Those students who are successful in school, successful in life—not only with high paying jobs, but as good and decent people—have or had parents who held them accountable for their actions. Certainly there are children from poor families with drug-addicted abusive parents who become spectacular successes and kids from loving families with strong morals and character and a comfortable lifestyle who become wastrels or scoundrels or whatever we consider an adult problem or non-contributing member of society, but those are exceptions, where individuals made decisions that were not formed by their parents or environment.
I do not hold my family out as an exemplar of either, but I don’t expect any awards for how they turned out, either. I made an honest, earnest effort to raise my family, including all those fosters, with good values and ethics. Sometimes the magic works—and then there are those other times.
But, back to my fan mail:
Shantel was not finished with me: Also as a teenage mother by now if not later you should have more respect for yourself because you are the one’s who makes the decision how you want your child to grow up.”
Now who’s being silly. As a single father for many years, I have given up my dream of becoming a teenage mother, now or later. I was not aware that it is destined that all girls will be. Notice that I have not addressed the fact that the sentence is a non sequitur, even internally.
But she has a P to her S:
“I am a junior with a two-year-old daughter making A’s and B’s and I work and playing to start Georgia University.
“What if you were pregnant?”
First, let me say how proud you must be of a two-year-old who is making As and Bs. Second, “Georgia University”? I see, you said “playing.”
I am tiring. Let’s hear from a guy:
“It is my concern to let my opinion be known about the article that was published last in your Journal. I believe that it’s my duty as a student to let the author now that his comments were too strong. [Got it.]
“Although some of his points made sense and were good [I do believe I am getting the vapors.] it was not necessary to go to that Extent.” And later: Well, there it is.
I loved Nadeah’s comments: “First of all not all teenage mothers are trifling because they pregnant at a young age or got pregnant by accident.” I should add that most of these arguments take issue with something I never said. I begin to think that the teacher didn’t read it but summarized through his own filter. “If a girl comes to school to get an education why deprive them of that?” Recall that my argument was that they need to attend regularly and do their work or to get a GED. “It all depend on you.” As if I don’t have enough on my shoulders.
Sandra: “I’m against your opions….You are a teacher and your job is to grade then in what they turn in and give them NC (No Credit because of excessive absence) when need it. [Now that I understand that my job is grading rather than teaching, all the standardized tests make sense.] You should not waste talking.
“For example in one of my classes there is a student who is always late, I mean every day [Aha. Always takes on meaning for me.], but the teacher can’t do anything. She talked to him, but it didn’t work But she doesn’t waste her time because she has other students to teach. I think you should try to help then and support then….
[In “Their feet are roasting by an open fire,” I discuss the rare administrator who disagreed.]
Kris was less tactful: “First of all I did not like the way you sounded in your letter. [See, I knew they weren’t reading opinion columns in the newspaper!] you made it sound like you know everything. [well, I was an opinion columnist. That is sort of in the job description.] In this world where there really is no such thing as right or wrong….[!] As long as you support your feelings that’s all you need in this world. [That single sentence explains so much.] So I think you need an apology [Now we’re getting somewhere!] to those girls you wrote about. [Well, that took an ungrammatical and unsurprising turn.] We girls are very sweet. [Never mind easy. Oh, dear. Address your letters to the Hon. John Boehner. He has nothing to do with anything, but if we occupy him….]
We wrap up with Elizane. “We girls are very sweet and sensitive [You did not see the gang of sweet and sensitive pregnant girls shouting obscenities as they chased me down the hall way. Oh, for a hidden camera.] It all begins when you are small your parents talk to you about life. They tell you….not to have sex before marriage.
“Some girls have boyfriends at early age between 13 to 17. They think they cool because they have a boyfriend….If a boy tells a girl that he loves very much. [Warning!] she might go crazy. [Go on.] And then a boy will ask her to come to his house to let’s say do homework and study. [Yes, let’s. But we all know where this is going.]
“They study for a while but then they will start kissing and doing things. [Study?] and the boy says he loves her very much. [And, let me guess, she goes crazy.] He never seen a girl like that. And then they do it. [Those sweet-talkers.]
“Then 2 months later. The girl starts feeling things. [No comment.] Then she go to the doctor and she finds out she is pregnant.
“Well some girls have sex for fun and pleasure, but others think she is falling in love. [The audience, I assume?] Well but the thing is if she gets pregnant she has to make a decission, will she keep the baby or will she adopt the baby.” [Ummm….]
“It’s a very difficult life to have a baby. In the first few months it’s ok. [Girl, that much time for a delivery is excessive!] But then you have put them in daycare. So you could go to school. And then run to work. Other girls like me would never do such a thing like that, have a baby in such a young age. One problem that the girls might have might be that they don’t have any person to talk to. So they go and do it.
“I think you shouldn’t say anything about people or girls like that.”
Lesson learned. I will not talk about either people or girls like that. Mainly because these missives, completely off -target, have convinced me that school isn’t doing anyone—people or girls—enough good to make an issue of it.
I also want to mention that I taught in Alexandria City Public Schools for 20 years. In that time, I had at least a score of students whose grandmothers had been my students. Somebody didn’t have any person to talk to.
I guess at bottom, Sandra was right. I should not have wasted talking because it did no good; most schools are still determined to pass students through the machine regardless of whether they learning along the way.
Anyway, that was ten years ago and I am sure that things are much better now.