Two missionaries knocked on my door one evening as I was preparing dinner. They were quite friendly, and almost shy, so as I cooked, I told them pleasantly that I was already part of a congregation (okay, so I didn’t tell them which). One pushed a pamphlet about Isaiah into my hands, and I looked at it and gently informed her that I had already read Isaiah. If I’d had more time, I would have enjoyed some missionary-baiting, and seen which of us knew more about the contents of the bible, but dinner awaited.
The expression, “goes down swinging” came up with my high schoolers, and nobody knew what it meant. So I asked students to guess. One of the students, who moved to Norway from Russia and is having a bit of trouble getting accepted into the class, but is full of energy and always ready to volunteer an answer, made a wild guess.
“Excellent guess,” I told her, “and creative thinking, but not the answer.” The “cool” boys in the back of the room (the ones who once tried to come in through the window and secretly love to write) chuckled.
“M!” I called out to one of them. “What’s the answer?” He stopped laughing, his face blank. “Erm, I don’t know,” he said shyly. After a little more give-and-take with my class, H, a laidback yet clever fellow, offered the right explanation.
“Right. To go down swinging is to fail, but fail while trying. For example, to attempt to answer a question, even if you have no idea, is to go down swinging,” (encouraging smile at E), “while simply giving up” (I looked pointedly at M), “is failing without even trying.” I’m not sure what the ethics are behind using students as examples, but I checked with M later and he seemed cool with it, and said I should absolutely please call on him whenever I want (subtext: he’s too cool to raise his hand but really wants a shot at speaking). Ah, the complexities of high school!
An upsetting headline in the Washington Post: “Three Women Win Nobel Peace Prize!” Imagine a headline that read, “three men win Nobel Peace Prize.” Everyone would be like, um, yeah, duh, give us more. But apparently being female is enough of a distinction by which to designate the three Nobel Peace prizewinners. Not “Three Activists,” which shows what they did, or “Three Africans,” which is how other winners are usually designated, by nationality. Of course, to some degree their gender is really relevant to their peace work. Still, that choice of description seems telling in a world in which sexism is often called a thing of the past. But congrats to them!
While grading paper after paper for my American literature seminar, I noticed myself struggling increasingly with the word “unnecessary.” For some reason, by the millionth time I’d written it, I couldn’t spell it properly. An extra a and c kept sneaking their way in. I also got snarky in the margins: a student wrote, “one could ask if it is possible for human beings to become perfect,” and I responded, “but one shouldn’t ask. Not in the middle of a paper on Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography as an expression of the Enlightenment.” Ugg. I might get fired. Still, it’s more interesting than the “how is this relevant?” and “connect this to your main point” I’ve been slamming all over the papers.
On the other hand, grading these papers makes me realize just how much of my professors’ language I’ve swallowed. I find myself regurgitating things like “deft incorporation of …”, and “methinks this needs…” and the oblique “say more,” all trademarks of former teachers of mine. Sometimes I feel like there’s a tiny little me in the back of my mind, waving its hands and trying to be heard through all the other people who have colonized my brain.