Friday, December 16, 2011

Apparently, the post about The Power and the Glory last time was quite successful: I heard through the Grapevine that a number of you enjoyed it, and I know I inspired at least two or three people to actually read the book. My devious mission (to get people to read - wait for it! - literature) is a success!

Problem is, a successful post is hard to top. I feel like I have to write an even better, more thought-provoking one right now - something that will wow your socks off, compared to the last 50 or so posts that I've ever written on this blog.

Even worse, this is the worst time of year to write thought-provoking stuff. I've spent an hour and a half each day for the last four days with my nose buried in student papers. If my nose isn't buried in papers, it's reflecting the glow from the computer screen as I pound away on my Introduction to Literature syllabus for next semester. At the end of the day, I summon the energy to snuggle down on my couch under the Christmas lights and watch an episode of Monk, which is fun but not that thought-provoking, or Stargate: Atlantis. 

So, no: Between student papers and next semester, I have no thought-provoking comments for this blog. Probably I will post a Christmas poem in another few days, and get all literary again, but until then, I thought I'd leave you with a few crazy stories from the craziness of college semesters. This is my semester, in four stories.

I occasionally bring chocolate to my class. I have unleashed a beast here at my new school. Early on in the semester, I told my students that a boy gave me a kiss when I was in college - the chocolate kind, since I was at a restrictive religious university. I took the kiss back to my dorm room and announced to my R.A.: "A boy gave me a kiss today!" Her mouth opened, and she stared at me . . . until I produced the melting silver-wrapped treat on the palm of my hand.

My students have started doing this now, to each other. Alternately (depending on who is in on the joke), they horrify each other and make each other laugh by offering kisses in the middle of movies and other activities.

Random kisses are not the only danger of chocolate. Chocolate is also dangerous as a projectile. I was never strong in sports, and so when I throw a piece of chocolate towards a student who has just correctly identified a pronoun, my aim is never very accurate. The chocolate periodically ends up on the floor. Fortunately, it is always wrapped.

One day, I tossed the chocolate towards the student, it sailed up, and . . . it never came down. The students and I stared blank-faced at each other for a moment, then looked up. The chocolate had been stuck in one of the light fixtures. The brown-and-gold Dove chocolate wrapper stared down at us from the milky fluorescent light fixture, ten feet up.

After the students had finished laughing at me, I headed off to the Front Desk and asked them to tell Maintenance to take the chocolate out of the light. Notably, I did not tell them how the chocolate got into the light.

I have been drilling my students on grammar all semester long: what a pronoun is, what a noun is, how to change a passive sentence into an active sentence, and more. Subjects and direct objects turned out to be the hardest, so I made up example sentence after example sentence after example sentence for my students to do.

Coming up with the examples is always the hardest part. I've taken to writing facetious advice for men and women going on dates (advice such as dying your hair zebra-print), just to avoid the inevitable brain block when I think, "What shall I write this example on?"

Before I started giving advice, I went through a stage when all the examples were literary-themed: the Iliad, the Odyssey, Ender's Game and even Dante. At Dante, my class ran into trouble.

I'd written the examples about Dante's trip through the underworld, and I'd included quite a few (maybe four out of ten?) about his conversations with the damned souls in Hell. I used 'damned' as a technical, short and artistic term, like this: "Dante gives the damned news of their children." In that sentence, "Dante" is the subject, and "damned" is the direct object (people in Hell).

At this question, one of my students - smart and, apparently, brave - pokes up her hand and asks, "Why is the news damned?"

I'm not sure how much the students learned about direct objects, but they did learn a new vocabulary word, and that the teacher was not cussing in class.

Periodically, I announce a random holiday to my students. I believe I posted about Talk Like a Pirate Day in mid-September. In October, I celebrated the Mad Hatter's Day with a huge, floppy felt hat. In early December, I made all my students sing Happy Birthday to Milton. They complained, until I fed them more chocolate in celebration of his birthday.

In early December, the students had a chance to celebrate something: December 5, Ninja Day. I told them if  they dressed like a Ninja and sent me a photo, they'd get extra credit (5 points, only as much as a quiz). About ten of them took me up on it, and for the next week, my inbox was flooded with ninja photos.

The best were two guys from my Composition class (I'll call them Steve and Josh) that worked together. In a fit of procrastination that Saturday night, they dressed up all in black and spent ninety minutes lurking around the school grounds and taking photos. First, they sneaked up to my office to see if I was in there. I was not, but our two music teachers were. They stepped out of their office into the hallway and watched in astonishment as Steve and Josh crouched by my office door, flexed their fingers into pistol shapes and posed for a totally geeky photo. Presumably, one of the music teachers took the photo, because both Steve and Josh are in it.

Later they sneaked out to the school grounds and surprised as many students as possible.

As an English teacher, I've noticed how often people talk about Englishy subjects around me, like they assume that I couldn't be interested in other things (they're wrong, but my ears do perk up when I hear someone talking about poetry or grammar). I was accosted at lunch one day and asked whether 'sneaked' or 'snuck' was the appropriate word (It's 'sneaked').

A few days back, I received a random phone call at work about grammar. A guy's voice on the other line identified himself, told me that he used to attend my school and that the English teacher there would look over his writing. Since she had left, he had a question for me:

He wanted to know whether all quotes began with a comma, between the introductory tag and the quote, or whether the comma could be omitted. I informed him that the comma is occasionally omitted, if the quote and the part before the quote make a sentence together, such as this: Bill said that "The sky is blue." It's all one sentence, so there's no need for a comma.

He then thanked me, and hung up. If the question hadn't been so random, I would think he was a stalker. Instead, I've decided to start a business: 1-800-GRA-MMAR.

That's all, folks!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

I once heard someone describe broccoli as her new favourite vegetable: a food they'd once rejected but now enjoyed. My new favourite novel is The Power and the Glory. 

The Novel:

Eight months ago, I hadn't even heard of The Power and the Glory. For me, the book first cropped up on the Prague school shelves, when I was poking through our collection for extra copies of The Lord of the Flies. It stayed on the shelves for another few weeks, until I discovered that Augustine's theological tomes made horrible bedtime reading and absconded with the novel. Every night I curled up in my bed at Bubenečská flat with Graham Greene's tale, set in 1930s Mexico, of a Catholic priest on the run from a hostile government. As the priest tries to keep up the semblance of his religious duties, he struggles to overcome his fear of death and his deep sense of sin and damnation - a story which proves, in the end, emotionally and spiritually moving.

So moving is this novel that I will be teaching it next semester (Spring 2012) in my Literature course. In evangelical (and fundamentalist) Christian circles there exists an tendency to shun anything related to Catholicism as doctrinally contaminated and therefore irrelevant. Ironically, I have found the opposite to be true, especially in this novel: the Catholic priest's spiritual journey has great relevance for problems that plague the church, for problems that plague me. 

The Theme:

Last night I discovered the following passage about halfway through The Power and the Glory. The priest arrived at a town of relative safety, stops to listen to the confessions of the devout. In the sins confessed, the priest discovers a difference between those which are not truly sins and those which are truly damning. An elderly woman confesses the first type (not-truly-sins) to the priest, and he responds:

      "Why don't you confess properly to me? I'm not interested in your fish supply or in how sleepy you are at night . . . remember your real sins."
      "But I'm a good woman, father," she squeaked at him with astonishment.
      "Then what are you doing here, keeping away the bad people?" He said: "Have you any love for anyone but yourself?"
      "I love God, father," she said haughtily. He took a quick look at her in the light of the candle burning on the floor--the hard old raisin eyes under the black shawl--another of the pious--like himself.
      "How do you know? Loving God isn't any different from loving a man--or a child. It's wanting to be with Him, to be near Him."

At the heart of this passage is the woman's shocked response to the priest: "I am a good woman, father." A good person, to her, is clearly someone who follows religiously the laws of Mother Church: fish on Fridays, clear-headed prayers before bed. It is this, and nothing more, that makes her "a good woman" and indeed makes her so astonished that anybody could question this. How could people not notice how carefully she followed every rule?

Her self-defense echoes (I believe deliberately on author Greene's part, since he was no idiot) a better-known self-defense from Luke's gospel. Recounting Jesus's parable, Luke tells of a Pharisee who "stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess." Like the woman, the Pharisee names as evidence of his goodness public examples of his rule-abiding: his justice indicates that he follows the Jewish legal code; his regular measured fasting and tithes (weighed out, we imagine, ounce by ounce so that he does not pay too much), that he follows the religious code. Surely this is a religious man.

And yet there is something missing. It is the Catholic priest that puts his finger on the problem: this woman has no "love for anyone" besides herself.

At last the Catholic priest has brought us back to the root of the matter. Just as the woman freaked out about her "sin" when she ran out of fish or fell asleep at her prayers, so we freak out, with very little reason, if we miss one Sunday at church, if we wear jeans to church, if we miss a month or two of tithing, or a morning or two of our devotions. Like the woman, I have confessed missing devotions as though this were my biggest sin.

All these petty concerns, the priest reminds us, ought to be swept away so we can focus on the sin which is truly damning: a lack of love. It is not just the priest that believes this; it is St Paul himself. In Galatians he tells us that the Law "avails us nothing"; what is valuable is "faith working through love" (5:6).

Are we loving other people? Are we loving God? Am I?

Or are we only, as the priest says, "another of the pious"?