In addition to working my students over with poetry, I also subject them to long, off-topic, beautifully-written essays. When I realized how little good writing most of my students have access to, I started printing out good writing. For the first month, I printed funny, well-written craigslist ads (many from best of craigslist). These helped me communicate the importance of clear writing in everyday life, but did not have the luscious language I wanted to share.
The first piece I chose was Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize Lecture, first given to me to Dr Cheryl Cavanaugh, my high school English teacher. Gratifyingly, I have had a few students linger over this passage:
In her country children have bitten their tongues off and use bullets instead to iterate the voice of speechlessness, of disabled and disabling language, of language adults have abandoned altogether as a device for grappling with meaning, providing guidance, or expressing love. But she knows tongue-suicide is not only the choice of children. It is common among the infantile heads of state and power merchants whose evacuated language leaves them with no access to what is left of their human instincts for they speak only to those who obey, or in order to force obedience.
The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.
This week, I’ve added Barbary Kingsolver’s essay “Stone Soup”, which explores definitions of family and speaks to me as a child of a blended family, and “Seeds to Save a Species”, an article from Popular Science about the adventurous men and women who hunt seeds to ensure crop global diversity.
With these essays in my folder, I feel accountable to the world of word-lovers, rather than a lone, language-crazy, writing tutor. They are the symbols of my tribe, of my true home: they remind me what it is to be a writer, and give me the strength to show my students this as well.
“For me, a page of good prose is where one hears the rain [and] the noise of battle.” –John Cheever