Saturday, October 05, 2002

Community College

Not long ago, no more than 16 years, I was in a writing class at the community college. It went tremendously bad, from the very beginning. The teacher introduced herself as a 'published writer, and first time teacher,' passed around the syllabus and jumped in to her 'thing.' She talked about her favorite writers, and what makes 'good' literature.

Next to me another student leaned in and asked, "Wha'd she say?" In a whisper,
I repeated her comment on the 'genius of Gertrude Stein.'

Her lecture complete, she excused the class, but singled me out with her finger and said, "You stay here." The room was still crowded when she said, "I heard what you called me. I won't take that kind of remark in my classroom." I stared blankly, a true sophomore. "You called me a 'bitch,' and I think you should know that I heard you." She was clearly determined not to let her first teaching job get the best of her, and all I could do was say, "I didn't say bitch, I said 'Gertrude Stein.'" And politely, but still confused, I added, "Sorry."

Our first assignment was an essay on any personal experience. 'Write about something you know, ' she encouraged.

Back home I sat at my typewriter and tapped out a first, and second, draft on the garden I had started. I wrote about collecting seeds, sorting them and the prospect of planting more seeds in the future. I kept the seeds in a shoe box, in the laundry room. I was sincere, descriptive and proud of my personal, reflective essay. I was anxious to demonstrate that I was not the sort of person to call someone a 'bitch.'

My paper was returned to me heavily red inked. She did not merely correct occasional typos or grammar errors; she rewrote sentences. She took my expressions and words, crossed them out completely and replaced them with her own. Finally at the very end she asked if 'the flower box was a metaphor for all my lost hopes or a tragic secret, or something?'

"Your essay has no point. What is your point?" And she underlined this.

Our second assignment was to take a stand on an issue, and for my sake she added, "Be sure you make a strong point."

I wrote about the lack of quality television programming for children. I felt strongly about the issue, and wrote about what I felt were the consequences of violence in television, and corporate irresponsibility and greed.

There were fewer typos, but she was no more impressed with my effort. Her remarks suggested I choose a more controversial, or serious subject. She wrote in thick red ink, "Why not write about abortion?"

Yes, abortion is certainly an 'issue' and one couldn't very well write about it without making a point. I had to ask, "Why do you assign us writing exercises where we choose our own subject, if you have a subject in my mind for us already?" She did not like my 'attitude' was her reply. She sighed, and determined to try again: "You need to take a stand when you write. Writing has to be about something, and it has to have a point. Your writing is without a point."

The next week she held up a news magazine with Garrison Keillor on the cover. We had recently read an essay of his about baseball. She was very pleased. She talked about him like he was a student of hers; she loved him, or at least she liked that he was on a magazine cover and in her syllabus. I could barely muster the slightest interest in anything she found worthwhile. She had me completely turned off of writing, personal expression, Gertrude Stein, and baseball essays.

At home, dejected, sprawled out on our couch, I found the same news magazine, Time or Newsweek, and Garrison smiling broadly with a caption that read: 'My writing doesn't have a point,' or something like that. Inside he talked about the pointlessness of his stories, and the value of story telling that simply presents an event or idea, without drawing conclusions or dissecting the meaning. Of course I am only paraphrasing; I have searched for the article, unsuccessfully.

I regret that I can't recall the specifics, but what I gained from his remarks filled me with pure delight. I was affirmed, and perhaps not so very pointless after all. The article, his perspective, changed me forever. I don't remember anything else about that writing class, my grade or that bitch. I do remember regaining my sense of pleasure from writing, about anything. I write about pointless things all the time, and all of the pointless thoughts, moments, insights, events and beliefs I write about, make up a little bit of the world I live in. I have read some of Garrison's books and essays, and I love listening to "A Prairie Home Companion." I even lived in Minnesota for a year, partly in awe of "Lake Wobegon."

The world is full of issues, controversy and hardship. There is no end to suffering, regret and cause for rage. And it's not as though I have lived a life so untouched by difficulty that I am left unblemished. I still garden. I still keep seeds in boxes, collect and sort them. They are hope and renewal; some of them are sterile, some will be eaten or wither in the heat, but some of them will blossom and make new seeds. That's all. It just helps to know there are more seeds out there.

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