Ghost of classes past

What do decades of teaching leave a college instructor? Hopefully, remembered

Photo Illustration by Tina Flynn

Freelance writer Jaime O’Neill, a frequent contributor to CN&R, taught at Butte College for 18 years before retiring in 2005.

I’m guessing I left a fair amount of guilt in the wake of a long exercise in teaching English to college freshmen. Over the course of those 30-plus years, I routinely cajoled, begged, threatened and teased students to take their writing skills more seriously.

I never sank so low as some teachers I’d known—those who assured students that, without the ability to write well, they would surely wind up as derelicts on skid row somewhere, lonely, unwashed and unloved, all because of their failure to discern subject-verb agreement—but I came pretty close to spinning that scenario as I told them just what was best for them.

But would they listen?


Or at least many of them didn’t. They turned in papers they hadn’t, in fact, written. They turned in papers that were obviously written in haste, without a particle of human thought left clinging to the words that landed on the page. They often didn’t turn in work at all, and then, after an annoying time of unsightly loitering around my classrooms, bailed out.

I knew best, of course, what was good for them. Knew that if they wanted to rise in the world, they would need to write and speak as though they’d had an education. Who would hire them, I preached, if the language they used made them look like idiots?

And, putting my energies where my words were, I dutifully corrected hundreds of thousands of their errors, circling and indicating and writing in the margins: avoid passive voice/subject-verb agreement/mixed metaphor/logic?/ comma splice/pronoun reference/coherence?/paragraph unity?/dangling modifier. Scribble, scribble, scribble, all in the interest of diagnosing the common ailments that sickened their written work, but mostly in the interest of getting them to look at that work more carefully, to become, in effect, their own editors.

Over the course of my teaching career, correcting papers in that way had largely gone out of fashion in the fashion-driven world of higher education.

Back in the ‘70s, one organization of English teachers issued a proclamation called “The Students’ Right to Their Own Language.” The gist of that document argued that imposing “correct” English on students was an act of cultural imperialism.

Then there were dozens of theorists who made their academic reputations by going around to conferences telling English teachers just what they wanted to hear—that correcting papers was a) an assault on student egos, or b) a damper on student creativity, or c) an utter waste of time.

So, as I continued to buck the trends that made marking student papers more and more a thing of the past, it was with the constant suspicion that the theorists might be right, and that I was, in fact, wasting my time—and my students’ time, as well. Week in and week out, the papers came in with the same mistakes. No matter how many examples I used in class to explain the concept of sentence fragments, the next batch of papers would come in replete with incomplete sentences.

If all of that wasn’t discouraging enough, while I was so busy trying to spread the gospel that writing well was an essential skill for American success seekers, a parallel universe known as reality was going on right outside my classroom door.

Vice presidents and presidents were elected who didn’t know a noun from a numchuk, a subject from a verb, or a potato from a potatoe. And if that wasn’t bad enough, popular culture was stamping out hundreds of millionaires whose communication skills made grunting seem sophisticated by comparison. Rockers and rappers, athletes and anchormen all tended to promote the idea that semi-literacy was more than good enough.

Nearly all the big money was being made by vulgarians, from Howard Stern to Britney Spears, none of them notable for their ability to use the language with the sort of erudition, wit and skill I had been told were the necessary elements of a successful life in the land of the free and the home of the brave, where opportunity was open to all, if they would only study hard and not say “ain’t.”

In the America outside my classroom windows, however, if you could rhyme “mo’ “ and “ho',” that just might be good enough to launch a language-based musical career, and if you sought to lead the nation, you could begin by asking the probing question “Is our children learning?” and get elected on the basis of such probing rhetorical skills.

It is easy to think, then, that my long crusade for coherence was a life misspent, time squandered in service to the quaint notion that language mattered. I could just as well have given my efforts to teaching china painting or Morris dancing, for all the difference it made.

So, the other day, when I got the notice in the mail that my retirement pay had been directly deposited to my checking account, I wondered if that money had been well and truly earned.

Last year at this time, while I was still in the classroom, I was telling students of my hopes that I might haunt their future writing. “Whenever you’re about to send out an e-mail or an application,” I said, “I want you to feel my presence over your shoulder, double checking those sentences for mistakes that would betray you to your readers by making you appear less intelligent than you are.”

“Writing,” I told them, “is thinking made visible, and the words you commit to paper are a representation of how you think, and how you think is who you are. If you are writing a note to your future child’s teacher, you don’t want your words to invite scorn. So, when you write that note, I want you to hear my voice, nagging, telling you to ask yourself if the words you’ve chosen are the best words to convey who you are. I want you to wonder if my red pen would come down on any given sentence and, if you think it might, I want you to second-guess that sentence, and then recast it until it seems right. I want you to take care because, if you don’t care about what you’ve written, no one else will.”

I told them such things and a catechism of similar urgings and cautions. Though many of my words were surely lost or ignored, some were just as surely heard and heeded.

How do I know? Because words like mine were once said to me by teachers—many of them lost to memory, some of them no doubt gone to that great classroom in the sky—who stand over my shoulder to this very day, staring with me at the words on the page in a vigil against the mistakes that might trip me up and discredit the things I am trying to say.

Though much of the time I spent correcting student errors may have been misspent, I’m not sorry to have spent it. Had I not, some of my students would be trying to write things that now matter to them much more than anything they ever wrote for my classes, and they would be doing that writing all alone, without the company of that nagging ghost who stands behind them urging them to make it better.