Sunday, June 20, 2010
In defence of the 'wrong' English teachers
One thing I’ve seen cropping up in a couple of reviews and blogs I’ve read recently is the fact that people seem to derive a great deal of satisfaction in discovering ‘proof’ that their old English teacher was wrong. To some enthusiasts of reading and writing, there are few pleasures sweeter than finding a brilliant book by an acclaimed author written in second person present tense, or eschewing usual methods of paragraphing or punctuation of dialogue. “Aha!” they cry with righteous relief. “I knew my English teacher was wrong to inflict their tyrannous rules upon me. See here how this author has done exactly what my English teacher said I should not do and now they've won a literary prize and topped the New York Times best seller list for months!” It does seem that English teachers breed this type of sentiment more than other types of teachers. I for one have never felt the temptation to gloat at how wrong my old primary teacher was for teaching me that there were nine planets in the solar system when it now turns out that Pluto isn’t really a planet after all. I mean technically she was wrong about it. The whole mnemonic I learnt is completely thrown out now but I can’t help but feel that it was worth my learning. I still know the order of all the other planets, and even if Pluto isn’t a planet, at least I know a bit about its relative size and position in the solar system. So really the overwhelming majority of what she taught me is true and useful to know. One small technical change has not invalidated the entire model of the solar system that I have learnt. The same applies to many of the ‘rules’ of English language as taught by English teachers. Yes, they are only conventions. Language is a highly malleable and mutable tool of communication but people need to grasp the commonly accepted codes and conventions to use it effectively. Besides, for every great work of literature that bends or breaks conventions of narrative voice, punctuation or language structures, there are many more that do follow the basic guidelines of English usage. I suspect part of the reason that people like to jump on the ‘my English teacher was wrong’ bandwagon is that many of us have long kept grudges against some English teacher in our past. Even I, despite being an English teacher, have a well-fed grudge against one of my old English teachers to whom I shall refer with the discrete roman a clef ‘Mrs Sourcrumble’. As a young teenager with aspirations to becoming a writer, I found the creative writing section of the English curriculum a troubling one. In those days, creative writing was part of the external exam. Whilst I generally did well in tests and exams, the combination of stressful conditions and imposed time limits induced a crippling case of writers’ block that cursed me with the creative dexterity of a panicky horse on roller-skates. Despite, or possibly because of, my desire to show what a great talent I was, I floundered around and wrote drivel even in the practice tests. However, whilst I knew these were not my best work, I did not enjoy seeing Mrs Sourcrumble’s ubiquitous red pen all over my stories and terse comments such as ‘derivative’ and ‘predictable’ as her final verdict on my rough drafts. It’s difficult not to resent a teacher when they say something unkind about a creative piece of work that you struggled over, even if you know deep down that it wasn’t very good. Even people that don’t actively aspire to being writers often think that if they ever got round to writing a novel, it’d be brilliant. Nobody wants to hear that a story they went to the effort of writing isn’t any good. I think many of us have had Mrs Sourcrumbles in our lives. Often they are our first experience of receiving criticism on our writing, and then to add insult to injury, they give us homework. It’s little wonder then that people have a desire to prove them wrong. If some successful author breaks one of Mrs Sourcrumble’s precious grammar rules, then she was probably wrong about my story being ‘derivative’. When people rejoice over English teachers being wrong, they’re just happy that their own personal Mrs Sourcrumble is demonstrably not the all-knowing arbiter of great literature and her harsh critiques can justly be disregarded. If the powers-that-be ever do decide that after so many years of misuse, they want to abandon the apostrophe to become the ill-fated dodo of punctuation, the internet may well break under the weight of people delighting that their English teachers were wrong, and as they had always suspected, they really hadn’t needed to learn about apostrophes of contraction and possession after all. However, I have finally come to appreciate that, like the possessive apostrophe, Mrs Sourcrumble’s red markings are not something to cast aside. They did have a valid point. One of the gripes I’ve seen recently is the insistence of many Mrs Sourcrumbles that nice is a ‘boring’ word and students weren’t allowed to use it. Apparently Mrs Sourcrumbles tend towards harsh censorship of ‘nice’ and its sibling ‘good’. Wielding red pens and stern faces, legions of Mrs Sourcrumbles are marching through the classrooms of the world committing adjective genocide on their students’ work, and the students aren’t happy about it. Of course this at least is an easy English teacherism to prove wrong. There are multitudes of books and poems that toss in the odd nice and good with heady abandon. Once people have found a dozen nices in Jane Austen or a handful of goods in Shakespeare, it’s clear that Mrs Sourcrumble was unjustified in her mean-spirited teachings. Leaving aside arguments about linguistic shifts and differences in meaning and connotations with Austen’s nice, the fact is that when a Mrs Sourcrumble says nice or good are bland or boring words, it’s not actually the word itself that they mean. What they’re actually saying is that the description is bland or boring. Often when people fall back on saying something is good or nice, they’re just filling in space on the page. Writing that a holiday, kitten, chocolate or birthday party was nice is redundant. Readers assume those things are nice unless they’re given reason not to think that. I suspect that if the Mrs Sourcrumbles of the world had more time and less diplomacy, people would never get ‘boring word’ scrawled on the margins of their work. What they would get would be a typed letter stapled to their writing more along these lines: Reluctant though I am to pause from reading your compelling narrative, I must take a moment here to hastily scrawl out some comments of admiration before returning to your gripping tale of your day at the beach. I am staggered that a young writer of only sixteen summers possesses the wisdom to assure the reader as you have so aptly done with your use of the adjective ‘nice’ in describing Uncle Jeffrey. A lesser writer may have left the reader to infer the niceness of Uncle Jeffrey from his seemingly kind actions, culminating at this point in the narrative in the purchase of an ice cream for his young nephew/niece, the narrator of our story. Many a reader would have otherwise harboured suspicions about the true intentions behind Uncle Jeffrey’s dairy-based gift. Did he perhaps have some sinister plot to ply his nephew with fattening foods, thus contributing to high child obesity levels? Perhaps he knew that the plucky young nephew was lactose intolerant and an ice cream would be the last thing he wanted. Luckily for the fearful reader you have provided full assurances that there was no malicious motive in the gesture, Uncle Jeffrey is indeed nice. Quite a relief, let me tell you. It would be remiss of me to fail to mention your highly effective repetition of the word ‘nice’. What reader could fail to read of nice Uncle Jeffrey’s niceness without being put in mind of your evocative meteorological description ‘nice and sunny’ in the preceding sentence? It paints quite the picture. Not a ‘gloomy sunny’, ‘stormy sunny’ or ‘disappointingly cold despite initially looking promising when you first looked out your window in the morning sunny’, but a ‘nice and sunny’ sunny day. They’re best kind, aren’t they? What, the reader may well ask themselves at this juncture, could possibly be nicer than spending a nice sunny day at the beach with a nice uncle so infused with niceness that he buys his nephew an ice cream? This is where you really defy all pre-existing constraints of the conventional narrative and take the reader on an exhilarating ride to dizzying new heights of niceness. The very next sentence shatters all established limitations on literary niceness by informing the reader that not only were the radiant weather conditions and ice cream buying Uncle Jeffrey ‘nice’, the ice cream itself tasted ‘nice’. You do not trouble us with mundane details such as size, sweetness or texture of the ice cream. The masterful poet knows better than to bore their reader with direct references to obvious trivialities such as the flavour of the delicious confection. No, the elegant adjective ‘nice’ tells us all we could dare to hope to know about this ice cream of ice creams. It is an incredible achievement that one four letter word can conjure up a dazzling array of visceral descriptive imagery and yet also provoke profound contemplations of the transient nature of youthful delights. From your evocative description, I know in the very depths of my soul that this ice cream was vanilla. Not just any vanilla. No, it was the vanilla sublime. The vanilla whose deceptively plain appearance belies a complexity that brings a quiet but enduring pleasure far greater than the ephemeral ecstasy of its chocolate and strawberry counterparts. This vanilla at first lick was both hauntingly familiar and yet it tasted far better than you remembered vanilla. This vanilla embodied both sides of Blake’s dualism of innocence and experience, fusing them in a creamy symbolic union. To taste this ice cream was to understand at once the fleeting fragility of life and that the exquisite joys of the innocent heart transcend all others because they remain untouched by concerns of their own duration. Could an ice cream that provoked such thoughts as these be adequately described by any word other than ‘nice’? I fear not. Before reading this tale, I doubt I could have conceived of such a euphoric triumvirate of niceness. Now I can only wipe away a tear and imagine the person I might have become if I too had had a nice Uncle Jeffrey to take me out on nice days for a nice ice cream. I don’t think it requires an exhaustive stretch of aging imagination to presume to say that such an experience would be, for want for a better word because their obviously aren’t any, NICE! Of course I’ve been somewhat over-the-top in my speculations as to what Mrs Sourcrumble’s feedback would have been if teachers weren’t so scrupulously instructed to avoid directing sarcasm at students on account of it apparently having a deleterious effect on the student-teacher relationship. I’m sure Mrs Sourcrumble would never have written any adjective entirely in capital letters, no matter what the provocation. However, the gist of it may be close to the truth. Although part of me refuses to believe it, Mrs Sourcrumble was probably generously diplomatic in her comments about my writing back then. When Mrs Sourcrumble said that nice was a boring word, she was in fact displaying some kindness by attributing the blame for the boredom generated by my writing to that word, rather than the author. She was being, and I use the word with a hefty dollop of irony here, nice.