Stepping Through Mistaken Portals of Discovery
Remembering the whole person behind the submitted college essay
During those few times when we are not overencumbered with responsibilities, we rarely look up or around to notice how light and spacious the world is. In such circumstanced, we don’t always realize how lucky we are.
Last week I was discussing with a friend that people in their 40s and 50s often find themselves attending simultaneously to the needs of both their children and their parents. According to my small sample size, parents in their 40s prioritize the children while eyeing their parents, while parents in their 50s pivot to inevitable parental transitions while eyeing their children. Discussing these challenges, I enjoyed commiserating with my overwhelmed friend, quoting John Lennon: “Nobody told me there'd be days like these!”
Sometimes we turn to gurus and other sage and experienced people for the advice that will help us calm our minds or make better decisions. My wife Kate has been facilitating a new mom support group in downtown Davis for the last 22 years. You might know someone who has benefitted from the advice and fellowship that she has offered during that time. Even though she has three kids at home, one with challenging disabilities, she has been facilitating this group on an unpaid basis over the last two years, telling me recently that our other sources of income allow her to do so. (Finally, she has set up her own Patreon in case those who benefit would want to pitch in.) She learns so much from running “the group” (as we call it), and our friends and our children all benefit from the wisdom shared by my favorite complimentary life coach.
Speaking of advice, Google and the Apple News app both seem to know that I am editing a collection of writing advice, for they keep sending me to websites with advice on other topics. For example, yesterday Google News directed me to an “Ask Amy” advice column titled “Alcoholic wife wants husband's support to regain sobriety.” In it, a wife discusses the trepidation she feels in approaching her husband for help kicking the secret drinking habit that started six months after he gave her an ultimatum: quit drinking or get divorced. She needed him to forgive her relapse so she could count on her support to make healthier choices. I hope the husband accepts his wife and supports her. As shame researcher Brené Brown says, “What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human.”
Reading this column, I also thought of my students. Overwhelmed by what this pandemic hath wrought, they find it difficult (as I do) to find the physical and mental space to engage in the sort of deep work necessary to write a long feature or profile for my journalism class. What’s more, my students know that I evaluate their submissions fairly and dispassionately, meaning that I spend part of my time with them pointing out the inadequacies in their writing.
We can see why this process overwhelms some students. My classes (and most college classes) come with an unspoken ultimatum: Do the necessary work, or you will fail. I keep up my part of this agreement by judging students texts and administering the rules, but, like the husband of the alcoholic wife (we hope), I also focus on the person making the mistakes, and the steps that can be taken to encourage discovery and growth.
The very last quotation in my writing advice collection is by Book Thief author Markus Zusak. He says, “Failure has been my best friend as a writer. It tests you, to see if you have what it takes to see it through.” I agree! I impress upon my students that the mistakes in their essays can be what James Joyce calls “portals of discovery,” that is, if they can free themselves of the feelings of dread and shame that they usually attach to egregious errors. Our mistakes, relapses, and repeated blunders give my students and me topics to discuss in class and office hours: they make learning possible.
But so that I do not become a dour and captious carper who seems preoccupied only with mistakes, I remind myself daily that patience and compassion for my beleaguered students must balance, perhaps overbalance, the implied ultimatum of the classroom. This pandemic has hopefully taught us all lessons about people (and perhaps about writing) that Gautama Buddha shared 25 centuries ago: “As rain falls equally on the just and the unjust, do not burden your heart with judgments but rain your kindness equally on all.”
I send deep thanks to everyone who supports me on Patreon, and who therefore make our weekly remote pandemic pub quiz possible. Special praise goes to our new Patreon patrons, Michael and Catlyn, and to our sustaining members, represented by the teams Quizimodo, The Outside Agitators, The Original Vincibles, and Bono’s Pro Bono Obo Bonobos. Let me know If you would like me to add you or your team to this list.
P.S. Here are three questions from last week’s Pub Quiz:
1. Countries of the World. Which of the following is the equivalent in Lichtenstein of an American president? Would that be a king, a prince, a regent, or a viscount?
2. Popular Acronyms. Originating in the 19th century, what acronym is spoken more than any other?
3. Science. What is the oldest of the natural sciences?
P.P.S. One more piece of writing advice: “The perfect ending should take the reader slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right to him. He didn’t expect the article to end so soon, or so abruptly, or to say what it did. But he knows it when he sees it. Like a good lead, it works.” William Zinsser