Ignoring Skeletal Remains

An excerpt from a 5th grade student’s writing assessment –


“The nexted reason’s plastic bag’s should be banned. The should be banned because they can cause lot’s of stuff like car actedents death sickness. some People say the should not be banned bc they like them they are fun but they are not realy. The should be banned.”


To be honest that’s middle of the road. In March. For a fifth grader I will definitely be sending off the 6th grade and beyond. Yesterday as I was driving to the gym I was thinking about what to write today. Thinking about what might pop up that would spark something. I remembered the papers I had just graded. All the time I have spent baffled at horrendous uses of punctuation when punctuation is even used at all. Yes, some kids literally just create a huge block of works, free of indentation or separation or even periods or capital letters. In fifth grade.


I was thinking about this and my mind drifted to the notion that there actually one day may not be any more new, actual, written work. Like articles or columns or anything. Even readable blogs. And the closer to actualization I came meant the further from this generality I traveled and I realized there was no way this dystopian literary non-future was true. It was just that none of the saviors of our printed lexicon would be coming from my tutelage. Yikes.  


Don’t get me wrong – please. I think this is systemic. I think it’s national. I don’t think, in fact I know it’s not the case, that the teachers my students had before me are incapable. Haha. No. They are miles better than I am. I am aware of that. I am also completely and totally aware that I am scolding ten year olds in front of a bunch of writing teachers from a bully pulpit of a blog site built on shoddy grammar, poor spelling, juvenile punctuation, and half baked ideas cobbled from half asleep partially firing brain cells.


My point is I had that thought. I realized there has been one. One kid who I know has it inside. Who, if this talent is stoked to blazing in a manner so relentless that burnout is a real possibility by mid-undergrad time, maybe, just maybe there’s a future wordsmith brewing. I have no questions about whether or not I tried hard enough to get this student to see how much belief I had and how much I wished I could lifetime mentor success and drive and passion bordering on obsession for writing into their future. I begged for blood and guts and pure truth and devotion.


Meh. We’ll see. It’s a little early yet to tell what my students are going to wind up as. And I might draw tons of derision if lots of hardcore long time writing teachers read this. I know. Who would slap me straight with the differentiation stick and rap my knuckles with the spine of a grammar textbook while chanting the mantras of the interventionist handbook currently catching the world on fire into my ear. I have a lot to learn about being an educator. I know. About being a writing teacher. Yes. But what I do know is that I just really really want them to love it and be great. And I guess I just want my want to be enough to make it happen but I know it’s not even close.


So while I think writing as a practice will continue and realize I am not churning out the Vonneguts and Shelleys of the next generation currently I need to look at myself and ask why. Up my game. Writing is my thing and the curriculum helps and I throw in more than my share of stank on it but I get all wrapped up in begging them NOT to show don’t tell me their stories but to actually bring me there and let me walk around in their miseries and triumphs and swamps of oceans of confusion and torment, that I forget I guess to teach what a period is. That every word ending in “S” doesn’t get an apostrophe. Because they don’t all come the way we want to order them. So they’re not there because I am not yet equipped to get them there. Dark Side of the Moon was not written fueled solely by a passionate love for astronomy. I know these ten and eleven years olds will probably never be angel-headed hipsters while under my care. So I will continue to act like the next Confederacy of Dunces has been discovered when an original written thought by a student literally makes me laugh out loud, even if their transition words befit a scribe of a much younger caliber. I will always treat a kid who takes a stand on the page, and backs it up, whether I or anyone believes them or not, as the next coming of Ayn Rand or Upton Sinclair even if they don’t keep with the red line on the left margin of their loose leaf paper and it looks like the thing was written by a chicken on the back of a wobbly race car. I’ll never stop sifting through unpunctuated sands looking for gems I constantly find buried begging for polish that look like Hemingway’s heart or Whitman’s eyes or Judith Butler’s balls. Anything I can get pumped about and show them there is a writer inside that just wants a little focus on the craft so it can be let out.


I will get better and when I do, they will too. At least I think I know they know that I think that writing is a very important skill to have. That I love it. That even the kid quoted at the top, who did not score past “beginning” on any test given this year, believes that I’m proud that at least something has begun. I know I focus so much on the blood and guts and getting them to render or summon all of this messy exposed nerve rawness that I forget the skeleton. The structure. Punctuation and grammar and all that fun stuff. I’ve always been a poet so I think I favor gory stuffing that can meander where I make it fit over skeletal stiffness. My kids know that the best part about writing, and about their own growth, is that it can’t be over no matter what, until they decide to say “the end”.

3 thoughts on “Ignoring Skeletal Remains

  1. This post had me chuckling and nodding my head. I too have feared the coming of a dystopian future where all books will be giant blocks of text with no structure and awkward, stilted conversation written in text message lingo between characters named “Amanda” and “Katie.” (Always! WHY????) We are probably too hard on ourselves as English teachers. Do what you can to make them into readers and writers, and they can find a good editor for the rest. (Editors are immortal, right?)


  2. Thank you for this. I appreciate your honesty, humility and self reflection. I think teachers too often walk around proclaiming to the world that we’re perfect, but it can’t be true. We dole out feedback by the bucket loads and then balk at the idea that we too, could improve. I have a list a mile long of things I could do better. The only thing to do is soldier on, keep tweaking, and be honest with ourselves and colleagues. Your writing voice is so engaging, clear and colorful!


  3. Great post! I know exactly how you feel, for some of my 9th graders do what your 5th graders do! The most important thing is that we are getting them to write. We will see the growth eventually.


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