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The morning I believed in time travel

Despite now studying French, I still have the honor of delving into my English-teacher roots by daily tutoring two boys via Skype in English language conversation in South Korea. Due to a guest post on my blog a few months ago, I already had a vague idea about celebrations of Buddha’s birthday (which just passed on May 17) and the traditional game of gonggi. I knew vaguely that South Korea is 13 hours ahead of Pennsylvanian time, although I always forget and cheerfully say “Good morning!” to my two students, who giggle and reply with equal amusement, “Good evening!” I’ve met their parents and their non-English speaking grandmother, who has shown me traditional New Year’s clothing, has promised to buy me Korean ice cream if I visit, and blessed the kimchi that I am making this weekend. All of this is special, but not too shocking; in a virtual world, this is almost to be expected.

But the morning I believed in time travel was when the family pulled back the curtains in the computer room to show me the pitch-black night and the rows of well-lit apartment buildings that stand opposite theirs. “We live on the third floor,” one of the boys pointed out, and I nodded with understanding. (The writer of the blog post on South Korea had including a photo of apartment buildings.) But floating in the window, in the middle of the city lights, was the reflection of my Skyped face, glowing brightly from the computer screen — existing 13 hours ahead of Pennsylvania time and 7000 miles away.

Everland Snow Festival, South Korea.

Everland Snow Festival, South Korea.

Friday Photo: Doritos Birthday Love

“What do I find priceless about [Pennsylvania]?  Fall colors.  Open spaces.  School buses.  Soft cookies.  Bacon.  Beautiful Hollywood cinematography.  Swedish fish.  DORITOS NACHO CHEESE.”
–  my journal, March 8, 2008, Talange, France


In the course of human events, I’ve learned that my deepest life loves seem to be more evident to me when I’m abroad.  I remember sitting on my creaky wrought-iron bed in my apartment in Talange, France, with my journal splayed open before me, thinking, “Yeah. I could KILL for Doritos.  Like, right now.”

But I’m not abroad, not right now anyway.  I’m living a moderately-controlled, semi-normal life, with a structured job teaching grammar.  But what I’ve found is that my secret passions, the ones you don’t bring up in polite conversation, still come out — in my grammar sentences, of all things.

“You see,” I say, facing a class and beaming, “‘Doritos’ is plural.  So when acting as a subject, ‘Doritos’ would have to be paired with the plural verb, such as in the sentence, ‘Doritos are my favorite snack.'” I write the sentence on the whiteboard in squeaky black marker.  “What if you flip it around?  ‘My favorite snack is Doritos’?  Then Doritos becomes the predicate nominative, making the verb agree with the subject, which is now singular.  Neat, huh?!”

But to be honest, I’m not the type of person that has a stash of Doritos snack bags in the pantry for lunches every day.  I’m not even the one always responsible for those bright sparkling bags of chips that show up mysteriously at your appetizer table, the bags that I always somehow seem to finish.

I rarely even buy Doritos.  Except for that time in 2008 when I was in the deserted town of Beersel, Belgium, with my boyfriend Jon, and we noticed that Spicy Thai Chili Doritos were actually sold in Europe.  (I seized one bag which we shared for lunch with some pigeons and a bar of chocolate.)  Or that time that when Jon and I accompanied Anne Timothy to Newark Airport at 2:00 in the morning, and I made Anne buy us Doritos when we stopped for gas.

Today, my eighth grade students surprised me with a gift for my upcoming October 12 birthday: six brightly-colored bags of Doritos in multiple flavors, which they insisted I “save for later” while they divvyed up the streamers and chocolate icecream pudding cake.  As they ate, they were surely thinking merrily about Doritos as direct objects and objects of preposition, receivers of the action in passive voice and givers of the verb in active.

But I was thinking about the Doritos, and how maybe my students know something I don’t acknowledge.

When teaching, I am in denial of a lot of things: the constant worry that I’m interesting, the worry that I really don’t know what I’m talking about, the concern that I’m nothing but a French grammar Eiffel Tower freak.  I acknowledge openly to a lot of people that teaching is a tiring job, sometimes too tiring.  But despite this, I also deny that I secretly love having a classroom because through it I have the ability to share with my students what I don’t share with other people who are close to me: stories about growing up, the fears I held in high school, the poetry I wrote at age 15.

I know my students through their behavior, attitudes, and grades, but they also know me, too: the lies I told my sister Andrea about eating soap (and how this relates to trust), the emails I get in my inbox (and how the grammar of some of them helps me detect fraud), the difficulties of teaching in France (and how French relates to English).

As I teacher, I overemphasize and underemphasize facets of myself in order to make a point.  But with a gift of Doritos, my students pinpointed something different: that they knew me too in a different way than some.  By giving me a gift of a part of myself that I thought was an exaggeration, I realized that they had found a truth.  I was excited to have six bags of Doritos for my very own.  Like, I’ve-been-stranded-in-France-for-six-months excited.

“What am I supposed to do with all these?” I asked the students, feigning confusion.  “Save them for the Super Bowl?”

Yes, I thought.  The Super Bowl.  American upon American.

I opened a bag of my sacred Spicy Thai Chili, took a handful, and humbly passed the chips to my left: breaking bread with those who had read me between the lines.

Doritos Birthday Love, October 2011

Friday Photo: Negative Reinforcement

Negative Reinforcement, Harrisburg, September 2011

“Is it an emergency?  Than you may not use the bathroom during the lecture.”

“The word able actually is functioning as an adjective, not a verb… because really, is able an action you can do? Can you able?”

“Guyyys…” (insert warning tone, and the three boys slapping each other vigorously with rulers will stop, as is what happened today. I’m serious.  Seventh grade.)

“No, I have never seen a cannibal — I’m still alive” (the response of my co-worker to an eighth grader’s question)

In teaching, “yes” and “no” are pretty common words, almost as common as “please” and “thank you” — or, what my class seems to be famous for, the requirement to ask permission by saying “may.” I’m used to denying students the privilege to look through my yearbook during study hall or to move an exam a few days in the future.  I’d guess that anyone in a position of authority could relate to having to sift through the multitude of positives and negatives that run through a situation, due to the fact that the obligation of an authority is to channel an individual’s need or want into those of a community.  Thus, in bringing society toward a collective good, some authorities possess an understanding that the rest of us do not: For example, do my students really know why they must have a topic sentence when writing a composition, even though I’ve told them?  (And who determined that 65 miles per hour on Pennsylvanian highways was really the speed of least congestion and least danger?  It could at least be a mild 74.  Pshaw.)

Today, when walking down an alley that I’d never taken before, Granite Street between 2nd and 3rd Streets, Harrisburg, I found myself facing 4 blood red stop signs, one for each intersection from 2nd to 5th Street.  I had chosen to walk down the alley on my way to get a grilled chicken Caesar crepe from Chris’s Crepes and Coffee Co. at the Broad Street Market, and I had picked my path simply because the street was empty and I had needed silence after a day of high school grammar.  (“The driving cars zoom past,” because ‘driving’ here is a verbal acting as an adjective but form as a verb with one of the verbal endings -ing….”  dang it!!!)

The repetition of the word STOP seemed symbolic: Don’t move forward, do not go, wrong way, wrong path, NO.  For my students: “stop” is a denial of freedom, an assertion of my authority.  For recent college graduates, “stop” is the denial of a full-ride to a master’s degree or the immediacy of a high-paying job that allows us to change the world as we thought teachers promised we would.  Whether the “stops” eventually become “gos” or not, what remains is that life denies us.  Often. Maybe more often than we thought.

The “yes” in life is still there, but it’s more complicated because it’s implied.  If “no” is the result of a deviation, “yes” the silent converse: you’ve done a good job, you’ve conformed, you’ve succeeded.  Good job.  You must know, so we don’t need to tell you.

I have to wonder: what would happen if I said thank you to a class who remained quiet during study hall, as they should, instead of assuming it doesn’t need acknowledging?  Probably I’d get the same reaction that a cop would get if he gave parking thank-yous on there were no days for parking tickets.  (Not only is that awkward, but it’d also be pricy–can you imagine the law book filled with the inverse of every “no”?)

It’s not productive to ask for a “yes” in every area of life, but knowing the “yes” is healthy.  No, this job is not for you, but yes, you’ve done a good job getting that degree and at least some experience, so way to go.”  “No, Sylvia, the speed limit is NOT 74, but you haven’t gotten a ticket in 6 months for the first time in three years, and yes, PennDOT has noticed.”  (I wish.)  Realizing the “yes” seems to involve just lifting our head out of the normal routine and realizing that every action, whether it falls in line or not, is still an individual’s choice.

Yes, I can do that.

Adverb Questions

In teaching an eighth grade English grammar class today, we discussed the questions that adverbs answer: when (dance now!), where (sit down!), how (sing merrily!), how often (sneeze frequently!), and to what extent (abandon completely!).  I had a student trace stencils and put these questions on a poster that I hung above my whiteboard, right in plain sight of the students when they doze off in the middle of a grammar lesson, as I expect they do.  (Grammar is hardly stimulating.)  But the poster also mentions a final question that adverbs sometimes answer: “Why.”

The grammatical reasons why adverbs provide this answer are complicated, but the use of adverbs that answer this question is not.  It’s the questions most frequently asked by toddlers: Why is the sky blue?  Why are boys different the girls?  Why (as I once asked myself), if everyone likes pizza, don’t we just eat chicken and pizza every day?  The process of asking “why” diminishes as we age, but I, like Michel Faure, who asked in the Spring 2011 column of France Magazine, questioned today the reason why we stop questioning.

“All children are philosophers.  They aren’t aware of it,” Faure writes.  He explains that, like most intellectuals, children are simply looking for the Truth of what the world is and how they fit into it.  However, for most of us, philosophy stops at school, that institution that helps condition us to fit into society.  Students are taught to measure margins, type properly, and write papers to the hundrenth word.  That helps people become good, productive, and organized citizens, but that particular adverb “why” can become lost.

As an English teacher, I’ve often felt confined by the grammar-centric portion of my curriculum.  However, beneath the structure of the words that we speak, the words and their meanings still remain.  Getting a student to understand “what” is the focus of his essay is hard enough; being dedicated to him the “why” behind his writing is even harder.

Ninth Grade 2010

Jumping with Grammar Joy, 2010

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