English 101



I worked with quite a number of English teachers during my long thirty-three year teaching career.  They, as a group of educators, contribute a great deal to the heart of a school.  Over the years it has become my opinion that the purpose of language arts is to cultivate the dreams of dreamers, the hearts of romantics, and inspire the hero in all of us.

Back during my days in high school I recall reading Romeo and Juliet as a freshman.  It surprised me that teen angst played a central role in a Shakespearean play.  I suffered deeply from those same dramatics and felt validated that I didn’t suffer alone, Shakespeare understood.  By my junior year I developed a serious crush on transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau–that dude sought the identical truths troubling my path at the same time.  In college, Flannery O’Conner’s A Good Man is Hard to Find haunted my thoughts for many months after reading.

In light of the power of the written word, I’ve never understood an English teacher’s penchant for dissecting the writing of their students.  Correct their grammar, okay, but the voice on the paper is so personal that trimming and cobbling feels more like slashing and burning creativity.  (Math teachers really hate it when English teachers correct their grammar.  In one inservice an offending math presenter snapped back, “now for your algebra equation).  I get the part about smoothing out sentences, polishing images and descriptions, but how much is too much intimidation and infringement on the writers soul.

This blog sounds somewhat defensive, and I am aware of my sensitivity.  My book is in it’s final edits and reviewers are hopefully at work as I write, plowing their way through my manuscript.  I have refrained from asking anyone from a Language Arts background to review my work, out of fear of a big red bad grade.  Writing River of January has been such a journey, such a sacrifice of my time and heart, I don’t think I could bear to have banal technicalities flaying the story.  I’ll let my publisher/editor suffer through those arcane changes.

The truth of the matter is that I did not set out in life to be a writer.  I was a history teacher.  In my area of expertise my students excelled in expository writing . . . you remember, the old blue book essays.  The mechanics weren’t as important as voice, evidence, and argumentation.  Where my writing lacks is in the finesse of perfect structure–and that is, I am painfully aware, my weakness.

So English teachers of America–give us heart, inspire us, and let us find our voices in our writing. Besides, since the start of this project I’ve written and rewritten so much that I can see sentence structure much more clearly.  It takes hours and hours of writing to become a better writer. Put away your red pen and let the kids write amok.  As they improve, then go back and point out the rules of sentence structure.  For young learners the corrections will make so much more sense.

Gail Chumbley is author of River of January

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