Monday, September 8, 2014

Who Gets to Noun? Fran, Language, and Standards

American Bus Stop V: Prison (M.A. Reilly 2010)
I. Context

I'm reminded of Fran, a 20-something mom who taught me so profoundly as I sit outside reading from Gregory Orr's (2013) River Inside the River.  In one poem, "To Noun," Orr writes (p.18):
Nouns were a giant
Adam felt the sounds
He made
Build bars around
The things he saw. 
It hurt and thrilled him
To see how meekly
Each thing
Entered that cage. 
How snug it fit;
How smug he felt.

Who gets to noun?  Who gets to build bars around the things seen and be hurt and thrilled by such action is a question worthy of our time, our work, our energies. Years ago  I wrote an ethnography about ordinary courage, faith and chaos.  I was an adjunct instructor at a community college teaching a Developmental Writing II course which was mandated for students who had not passed the college's entry test. Instead of teaching the course as it had been strongly suggested (issue grammar worksheets, essay writing prompts, and practice sample test. Then repeat.) by the department head, I created the course with more of an inquiry bent.

Prior to the start of the semester I am reading Annie Rogers’ research about ordinary courage in girls' and women's lives and am finding her work to be fascinating. In discussing the etymology of the word courage, Rogers (1993) writes that in 1051 it simply meant “the heart of an age.” By 1300, courage means “to speak one's mind by telling all one’s heart” (p. 271). Towards the end of the 1400s, courage no longer is related to the heart, but rather commonly means facing danger without fear. In thinking about this work, I wonder how my students and I might investigate and document examples of ordinary courage in our lives.  It doesn’t occur to me that such interest may be connected to my own middle class life. I am largely ignorant at this point that many of my values may not be the values my students bring to class.  What I don’t know as I plan and revise the course is that nine out of the eleven students I will teach are all working class poor--half of whom are single moms in receipt of welfare services. 
             During the semester I introduce students to Rogers' definition of courage inviting them to author a memoir, collect an oral history from someone who is different from them (gender, race, etc.), and create a portfolio based on artifacts they created and collected. Through these projects I hope to occasion their growth in uncovering and witnessing courage in their own and others' lives and provide them with opportunities to develop their writing by composing texts related to themselves and others they find interesting.  (From Chapter 1)
I interviewed students multiple times in one-to-one situations and with their permission was able to study what they said and wrote in notebooks, essays, interviews, and commentaries about read texts. Fran helped me to begin to think about issues of power--to consider, Who gets to noun? I had been so enmeshed in the study and practice of teaching method, that the harder-to-see issues of power and consent were largely missing from my view.  Fran changed that.

II. Learning from Fran

During that semester Fran, the other students, and I wrote and read one another's writing alongside memoirs and essays authored by Jimmy Santiago Baca, James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, Charlotte Nekola, as well as oral histories collected by Stud Terkel.  Our interactions with the texts we wrote and read helped me to learn much about these students. For example,  Fran clothed and feed her family on $322 of welfare assistance per month.  Her only additional income was a $50 payment from her son's father, $140 in food stamp and a rental allowance that covered all but $100 of her monthly rent. Fran was at college (although barred at the time to take further courses until she passed the college entrance exam) as part of a condition to the welfare assistance she received. I was married, at that time had no children, and apart from teaching one class and doing some consulting work, I enjoyed a full scholarship to Columbia University where I was earning a doctorate.  Of course we were each more and less than these easy categories suggest, but nonetheless it was difference that first caught my ear as I listened to Fran talk.
When Fran was 17 she became pregnant.  Her boyfriend at the time, who was not the father of the baby was violent she tells me. She miscarried in her fourth month because her boyfriend beat her up. She told me the story through long pauses--her head bowed, eyes staring at the ground. "The place they put me. Right next to the nursery. In the hospital, right next to the nursery. I was sittin' seeing all those babies. It was hard." Neither Fran, nor her parents, pressed charges, although her stepfather "took the shotgun and was gonna kill the guy."  Fran explained that she just wanted to forget all about it, "to not think about it no more." (from Chapter 3)
She would tell me that is why she did not like to write. It caused you to remember, She said that choosing violent men as partners was familiar and say this with some laughter. "I just seem to have radar for them."  Later, she said softly, "I'm always fearful when I write. All the writing I get is bad news."
"It's always written down," she tells me. "The stuff you don't want."
"Like what?"
"Gettin' evicted, going to court, shit with the police." (from Chapter 3)
She continues adding child custody, child care payments, and welfare to the list.

Language hurts.  The who who gets to noun is not Fran.  She is acted upon.  A great confining.

I didn't understand that slim truth about language and pain prior to Fran.  That is not to say I had not experienced pain by what had been said/not said, but I didn't get it so viscerally.  In Fran's life, men nouned and women functioned more like silent conjunctions, ever joining.

Naming is a power.  It's one of the reasons I worry with our ongoing romance with state and national standards here in the United States.  The people who get to name them, hold great power.  They act. Everyone else is acted upon. They are like Adam building "bars around/ The things he saw."

It's the absences we need to account for.  The things not inside the bars that are ever so hard to see, to notice, to be brave enough to name.  It is the tensions between the things that get named and the things that are set off stage that we experience under the broad banner of reform.

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