High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

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Sunday, November 06, 2011

Thank you, Mrs. Hopkins, wherever you are.

I am grading papers. I will be grading papers. I look forward to the time, many moons from now, when I will be able to say that I was grading papers.

Some are good. Many are bad. Some have the goodness buried beneath really terrible writing. Those make me the saddest, for my sake and for theirs. For my sake because I have not learned the art of skating through and assigning a grade, so I often spend hours and hours trying to unearth the good and make comments that I hope will help the student let the good shine through. And I don't have that kind of time. For their sake because with the size of my intro classes getting bigger and bigger and bigger all the time, I just can't help them as much as I'd like to. Neither of us has that kind of time.

Grading always makes me think of Mrs. Hopkins, my Honors English teacher, Junior year, British Literature. She was fun. She was disorganized. She was zany. (As a class, we bought her a rubber chicken for Christmas, because she wanted one for her props box.) She loved the material and made us love it, too. But most of all, she taught us how to write.

I think my very first paper for her was on Hamlet. I got a B-- (yes, minus minus). I was shocked. I was appalled. I was disbelieving. I had always gotten As. Always.  I soon learned that mine was the highest grade in the class. Fs abounded. Fs! Can you believe it?

And then she spent several class periods teaching us How to Write—the mechanics: "That" is for things, "Who" is for people. Punctuation generally goes inside quotation marks in American English. If you put a comma before "which" and the sentence sounds funny, you probably meant "that." She taught us how to outline (and better still, WHY to outline, rather than giving us a busy work assignment forcing us to do it): For every I, there must be at least a II. For every A, at least a B. For every 1, at least a 2, and so on. If any topic level doesn't have at least one partner, it's either not part of the fabric of the paper, or it should be organized with some other point under an existing topic level.

She taught us that there was real joy in bringing order out of the chaos of our own thoughts, of disparate sources, of scattered notes that we thought we'd never be able to make sense of. She made us work hard, she gave us the tools to work hard, and she showed us the rewards for hard work—elegant, persuasive writing.

She was awesome.