31 December 2010

Life in the Margins

My friend is in his 80s; he wears dual hearing aids because he is nearly deaf, having had his eardrums blown out in WWII. He is developing cataracts which make seeing difficult, although he's planning surgery for them. I find this a lovely, optimistic thing to do: his curiosity and love of reading beating back those pesky proteins that would cloud the page. He does love to read and sits over his magazine with a colored pencil, editing the misspellings and poor grammar and incorrect facts. Fred was a teacher in his pre-retirement years. What a guy! I like to think of him as a humble guardian - a gatekeeper of the Mother Tongue - waging war with marker drawn.

Like many older folks, he likes to read things that are reminiscent: histories of areas he knows, stories from periods with which he identifies, and down-home country-isms. He is from down home, you see. He grew up on the Kentucky side in Appalachia, and his wife on the Virginia side. I like to think of them as a Romeo and Juliet meets the Hatfields and McCoys, only much happier, and clearly more sensibly disposed.

I was recently the recipient of some of Fred's hand-me-down periodicals. He was ready to donate them, and this particular publication is popular with local genealogists. I brought them home to remove address labels and to thumb through them before passing them along. As I browsed through Fred's editorial marks, I found a window into his life. For example, I never knew much about his military service, but his comments in the margins of articles written on the subject gave me to understand where he had fought and what he thought about the experience. Cryptic comments, like "tough time," "agree," "even worse," let me know that whatever the writer's description, it could not begin to measure what he had seen.

Specializing in non-urban, non-contemporary country life, these magazines spoke of growing up in remote hollows, drawing well water, no electricity, and barefoot boyhood. I could tell where Fred's bare feet had wandered, and a few things he had seen and experienced every time I came across his emphatic underlining and scrawled observations.

I have had one other such notable experience with margin notes in my life. In high school, a good friend and I shared a history book. I couldn't afford one; we had history at different times so she graciously shared her book and we passed it back and forth in the hall. For the record, I have always loved history but this class was decidedly boring and to enliven the hour we would make notes in the current reading, knowing the other would see it. We drew pictures back and forth, and otherwise communicated across the barrier of time via our extra-literation.  You could say we drew and read between the lines.

I remember once buying a textbook at a college book sale that boasted the following scheme: in the front cover of each book was the grade the student had made in the course (in order to sell your books this way you had to provide grade slips for proof) and you could buy based on one of a couple of strategies: you could buy the "A" student books and know you could probably trust their margin notes, or you could buy the unmarked books of the "C" and "D" students and start completely fresh. I always bought the marked books.

I have since experienced other editorial handiwork, some pleasant and some not. Thesis corrections were painful and occasionally incomprehensible. One undergrad professor often made my day with his sincere and supportive margin notes. As a student, you live and die by the red pencil. I have even experienced professional editing via computer program, although I must say it isn't quite the same. It's like breaking up in a text - just a little too impersonal.

A part of me feels it would open up an interesting new world if we could write a brief comment in every book we read. This is incendiary speech coming from a librarian, I know. And at the risk of creating a host of administrative problems for libraries everywhere, I will refrain, as should you.

Just know that when you buy my books, you get the window into my soul for free.

15 December 2010

Content, Context, Content

We really fail to fully appreciate the miracle by which children learn to speak and, by extension, to read. And how that miracle builds the future.

Probably many of us have seen the movie The Miracle Worker, and have all had the same goose-bumpy moment when Helen finally connects the motion of Anne Sullivan's fingers, and the feel of the cool wetness, with that one word from her babyhood - water.  You think about the hundreds of thousands of repetitions it took to provoke that epiphanal moment, and you wonder how your own children manage it with what seems like far less intervention.

Child-brains are sponges way more efficient that a sham-wow. We know this because they can catalog back to us every rude thing we've ever said when we thought they weren't listening. Which brings us to my theory of how kids learn language.

When our babies are born, we can't seem to resist talking to them. They look as intently at us as anyone ever will in our lives. In a way, they are a captive audience to anything and everything we have to say; we hold their totally dependent selves in our arms in such as way as to maximize communication. Think about it. How many times in our lives will anyone (much less our children) pay such attention to us? I believe this is not accidental - I think it has to be part of the great design of how knowledge is passed from one generation to the next.

Even new babies process our speech efficiently and immediately. They identify the sound of our voices: they know Dad from Mom. They know Mom from Aunt Bella. They know when Mom is cross. Soon, they know communicative sounds: singing, the shhh sound to calm them, the funny clicks and buzzes we do to amuse them. Eventually, they match words to results: eat to food to tummy-feels-better, for example. They discover their own ability to make sounds, and learn each sound's different response.

A working vocabulary is built on experience. Bed, toy, cookie, blanket, dog, etc. are the currency of day-to-day living. Well before a child can read, they can express their needs and observations in highly articulate ways. A child has an excellent foundation of functional vocabulary well before school age. After that, the skill becomes recognizing the word visually as well as aurally. Reading and writing, then, enable children to partake of a more permanent and dimensional use of language. Plus reading builds in them a vocabulary that goes beyond material usage. It helps them describe non-concrete situations such as feelings, impressions and ideas.

Once a child's enthusiasm for new language acquisition takes off, it becomes our obligation as parents to see to it that their lexical world is filled with constructive language. More than just the accumulation of vocabulary, children absorb our ideas, philosophies, and perspectives. Unfortunately, they can also absorb our prejudices, our phobias, our criticisms and our cynicisms. Even if we find evidence of these things in ourselves, we can spare our children those burdens.

Providing children with the tools for expression, communication and community is the first gift we give them as currency toward their future. Like clean air and clean water, our legacy should be a vocabulary filled with unsullied observation of their world: words filled with optimism and hopefulness. Much as we would not have them drink polluted water, we can refrain from teaching them words of fear, hate, intolerance, and anger, leaving those tucked away where we hope they never acquire them, knowing that just as toxic chemicals can harm their bodies, toxic words can harm their confidence and their souls.

Consider what Byron had to say:
"But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
  Falling like dew upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think."

Isn't it amazing to consider that the the potential of a better world is available in the words we give our children today. 

01 December 2010

Harvest Home

We sang Thanksgiving songs today in church, and one song struck me in a new way. Having sung it for nearly my entire life, I finally understood it:

"Come ye thankful people come, raise the song of harvest home.
All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin."

Written originally in a time when societies were agrarian, this song could not have helped having resonance with its singers. Talk of harvest, the quality of the produce, the preparation for harsh weather ahead. In the middle 1800s, people depended on their own labors to ensure food enough; they helped their neighbors in times of struggle, just as their neighbors helped them. But everyone also knew that a blessing of grace, good weather, health, and strength were not to be treated lightly. They desired to bring their thankful song home. To whose home? To their own, of course. But they also raised them to someone higher up. Thanksgiving is supposed to be as elemental as this: we have food, we can be together to share it, and we're thankful. All is safely gathered it. Even us.

Whether our forebears were merely anticipating a cold winter, or whether they feared something more man-made, they took comfort in the earnest effort and trusted that diligent preparation would be enough to sustain them. They had been obedient and had faith in the rest. Modernly, we also build security gathering in life's harvest. For us, the crop can be strong, caring and responsible children-citizens, fiscal responsibility, the good will of our neighbors and friends, the diligent upkeep of our homes. More importantly it is the reservoir of spiritual strength we have stored up within ourselves and our families. We all plan ahead for protection against the cold winds, whether they be natural or the bluster of an occasional hard society. We trust, after all we can do in obedience, that good will stand on our side. We have faith in all the rest.

"Lord of harvest, grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be."

Corn is a very versatile grain: if it is less tasty to humans, livestock still love it. If it won't work as cooking oil for your cake, it can be squeezed into ethanol to run your car.

It is pleasant to think of ourselves as tall cornstalks carrying bundles of vitally nourishing grain (or renewable and environmentally safe fuel) to those around us, strong and resilient even in poor conditions, tougher than the storms that blow on us and the sun that bakes us, and, in the end, a life-saving resources to those we love. And make no mistake - we do feed AND transport, both bodies and spirits! We are good grain, and we are so thankful.

See us now, green-golden and straight-backed, rustling gently in the breeze.