A New Year (…and my love of teaching grammar)

Facing Foward

With a handful of our grade tens offering thoughtful reflective posts on the turning of a new year, I have been thinking the last few days about the dawn of 2010. It seems as though I have been headed here in my mind for some time.

I can remember standing on the pool deck at the Gus Blass Scout Reservation in Damascus, Arkansas, where I first heard that we had been awarded this year’s Winter Olympics, which have increasingly become a vortex around which the city of Vancouver has rotated slowly since. In many ways it seems like the year 2010 has been here for years already, in even more than the posters and commemorative sportswear that has become ever more ubiquitous around town.

I am teaching my third consecutive year in a program I have been fortunate to help shape into its current form (in its current incarnation, the current T.A.L.O.N.S. Program is only four years old) 1, and am beginning to feel at home in the curriculum and means of teaching in the unique environment that a team taught, blended, interdisciplinary gifted program demands. This year I feel more capable than ever of becoming the teacher I wish to be, rather than one who is barely scraping through each day’s work load and unrelenting pace.

I survived a brush with death last year, and all of my various kings’ horses and men won’t have me put back together until sometime this summer. My lower jaw is already composed of synthetic material, and will see the installation of some five or six titanium posts that will eventually serve as roots to my new permanent teeth. At 28, I have been blessed to see my life as a fragile course that I realize – and continue to realize – myself to be lucky to still be enjoying. With some distance between the trauma of explosions, helicopter evacuations, and seemingly constant oral surgeries, I look ahead at 2010 as one of possibility, hope and appreciation for what I (still) have.

Over the course of the past many months, I have had to sit idle in recuperation as my body has healed and the world – especially at school – has blazed by around me while my world has consisted of Tylenol, soft foods and appointments with all manner of Vancouver’s dental professionals. Throughout this time I have been warmed by the presence of so many of my friends, family, colleagues and students, who have each made these difficult months easier, and are each deserving of a gratitude I will never be able to express properly.

With the passing of the winter break (and my (temporary) new teeth!), I am looking forward to a spring and summer that I plan to spend living up to the measure of care, kindness and sincerity that has surrounded me at home and at work (both in my personal learning network, and at school itself).  With a strength that returns more each day, the new year, and the approaching new semester at the end of the month, offers a chance for renewal unlike many my life has yet known.

The new year brings with it a new decade, and with it a chance to look back at ten years which have taken me from adolescence to adulthood, and shown me much in the world and myself.

In 1999 I was a freshman at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock studying Biology. I was on the track team and spent my first months away from home traversing the south in team vans and buses en route to cross country races and my teammates’ family homes in Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, Missouri and Louisiana. I was living in my school’s dorms, had recently discovered MSN Messenger, and I often wonder what I would tell that younger me if given the chance.

But then again perhaps I wouldn’t say anything. It might change the fact that I have wound up exactly where I wanted: surrounded by so many inspiring people, doing work that excites me and which will continue to lead me toward my best self so long as I am engaged with it.

The me of ten years ago had yet to discover his passion, (though running, at the time, showed me everything I needed to know about pursuing one). I had merely a passing interest in literature, music or the arts, democracy or history, and was driven by motivations extraneous to myself. And yet today I went to work with a guitar strung over my back, and a book on sentence diagramming under my arm, buoyed in the knowledge that my life has become an honest extension of a drive to continually discover myself, and the world, and share the experience with others hoping for the same (even if, as teenagers, they may not realize this sensation as hope just yet).

Literature has played no small part in finding my way here, and before we started in on a small unit on grammar that will include sentence diagramming, parts of speech, and (likely) much frustration, I alluded to this personal truth.

I told my class that in conversation with some friends over the weekend – two geologists and a visual artist – we collectively determined that a random sampling of each of our bookcases (and this with only one English degree – and a creative writing emphasis at that! – between us) would reveal a heavy slant toward the classics of the Western Canon: Shakespeare, Kafka, Woolf, Faulkner, Hemingway

Across each of our disciplines, reading, writing and the tradition of literature has wrought the distinguished result of helping to form our lives into visions of our unique selves. And I doubt we are unique in this regard.

My point in mentioning this was to express my gratitude to be the ambassador for a subject that is most-often an easy “sell, ” and whose purpose is to celebrate something which has not only meant a great deal to me, but the human race since it began. Selling the study of English isn’t always necessary, as our class seldom tires of critical debate, creative writing, and the elements of performance that are covered in the course of English. But today we began grammar, which induced groans usually reserved for organic chemistry and the square-dancing unit in PE.

The pessimism didn’t last long, however, and I don’t doubt that soon the prospect of getting their fingers in the dough of language will quickly become a source of exuberance and energy in the coming weeks. My students may not think so yet, but I wouldn’t have either when I was their age, or even when I was a freshman in Arkansas. It was still a few years before I wound up in Dr. Pat Moore’s class and realized that grammar  (as well as mathematics, science, history, and the rest of the balance of academic study) was merely another means of quenching human curiosity and creating knowledge, and were as deserving of the same celebration as Jack Kerouac, or Bob Dylan. In an age that will be no doubt fraught with technological advancements that cannot help but continue to shape literature and education, I hope to begin this year with a renewed emphasis on the tradition, as well as the future of English.

We start with grammar, and I propose that the next year, and the next ten, are spent celebrating the learning and discovery that comes with exploring these passions to the utmost with one another.   The community and meaning, and personalized means to this discovery literature  and communication afford us – in blogs and tweets and books and plays and speeches and discussions – is the basis of English education. And if the eighteen year old me of 1999 figured out anything that brought him to this place I am endlessly fortunate to enjoy, it is that everything else is a distraction from this singularly important task.

  1. Though the roots of the program in our district go back some twenty years, and involve some eight teachers in two different schools.

4 Comments:

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  2. Thanks for an excellent post, Bryan. As always, your prose carries a cadence and forward momentum that is at once lyrical and full of portent. It’ s been a challenging year for you but your continued desire to render the constricting walls of learning obsolete has been kinetic and spirited.

    “The me of ten years ago had yet to discover his passion, (though running, at the time, showed me everything I needed to know about pursuing one)… And yet today I went to work with a guitar strung over my back, and a book on sentence diagramming under my arm, buoyed in the knowledge that my life has become an honest extension of a drive to continually discover myself, and the world, and share the experience with others hoping for the same (even if, as teenagers, they may not realize this sensation as hope just yet).”

    Coincidentally, to mark the turn of the new decade, I asked my students to compose a letter to their future selves. I’ve promised to mail their letters to them in 2020. Their envelopes are bursting with the youthful bravado of 15 year olds, their accounting of themselves and the world of 2009, and their vision for what they and the world will become in 10 years. As 25 year olds, how naive, idealistic, exuberant, confused, wise, and conflicted their adolescent selves will seem.

    I’ve always been a softie for the condensing of time, experience. Looking forward and looking back are the ties that bind the isolated events of our lives into the story of our lives.

    Happy new year, Bryan.

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