I’m not sure blogging is good for insomnia, but when I lay awake at night I find myself thinking of things to blog about. So why waste all those synapses firing in a haze of sleep-deprived wakefulness. Following up on my post of earlier this evening where I despaired of the new (or not so old, perhaps ancient?) mechanistic view of both reading and writing that seemed, well, deadly, I remembered the following video that I stumbled over at Hopping Into Puddles.
Here at least language is not a machine. I realize that if these kids were older it would play right in to Gilbert and Gubar’s thesis that language, in the hands of men and boys at least, is a phallus. Which also calls all kinds of other things to mind. Still, better this than the dead metaphors of language as a tool, a medium, an interface. If it is, let’s at least say that language is the vehicle of the heart, the hands of one soul reaching out to another.
As Michael over at Hopping Into Puddles observes, this classroom too exemplifies a lot of what could be stereotypically wrong with an educational setting. The teacher reading that private speech aloud says that the only thing the classroom is for is the instrumentality of public speech. Any word that passes sideways is called in to public account. No doubt some techie out there would like a computer to grade this young Romeo’s note for word choice, sentence variation and paragraph length.
Anything so we forget that language is first and foremost a means of touching. My pen is the tongue of a ready scribe. Indeed.
One of my great failed experiments as a teacher of composition was to ask my students to go home and write the most beautiful sentence they could muster and come back prepared to tell why they experienced it as beautiful.
I had forgotten these kids attended high schools in America. Ah well. I’ve also learned not to assign a particularly beautiful bit of prose to my composition classes and ask them to comment on what makes it an effective or ineffective piece of prose. To a man or woman they destroy my icons by describing them as “wordy,” “unclear,” clogged with long sentences, or damaged by short sentences.
My question is, who damages kids this way, having dulled their imaginations, their inner ears into insensitivity to language? It can’t be their fault, surely. They are only 17 or 18 at the most. Too young to think the only thing important in the world is getting the job done as efficiently as possible. Or probably not. This is why we send them to school no doubt.
The boys especially struggle with this assignment, confirming my general sense that the literary theories emphasizing the masculinist and misogynistic biases of language have never been around a teenaged boy who loved poetry. This is a love won at the cost–society tells him–of his manhood, not a way of winning it. What the video above leaves out is the mocking laughter the boy will face at recess, no less from girls than from the boys. And why? Words expose, exposure disarms, potentially humiliates. James Baldwin truly believed that confession of one’s hidden self was the surest way to freedom, but it’s not clear that this wasn’t a romantic dream after all. The Hemingways and Norman Mailers of the world are not exceptions that prove the rule. They are more like men so unsure of their own sexuality they have to posture and preen; their viciousness with words reassures them that, loving words, they are men none the less for that.