Musings essential & frivolous

Getting Small Things Write

By Dave Badtke

Published on 9/21/2010 by Benicia.Patch.com

We’re in the sixth week at Solano College where I teach a few English classes. As one of my colleagues said, the first couple weeks are the best because we can focus on essays and short stories and poetry, focus on the wonder of our students’ education and the beauty of literature without worrying about grading papers. Maybe we’ll give a few quizzes, but they’ll be easy, created more to make sure our students are doing the reading, are coming to class, are starting off on the right path to December, and are beginning to think critically.

But then the papers start coming in and the grading begins. Since it takes me about 15 minutes to grade one paper, a little less if the paper’s great, a little more if the paper’s not so great, and each of my 100 students writes about eight essays, some of which are rewrites, I spend about 8 x 100 x 15 minutes = 12,000 minutes grading papers during the semester.

Could it really be that much time? That’s 200 hours, five 40-hour workweeks.

But -- maybe I shouldn’t have done the calculation.

In any event, as I write this, my first column for this exciting new Benicia publication, I’ve finished grading papers for the moment and have time to reflect on ZZ Packer’s Snot.

 But -- maybe I shouldn’t have put it that way.

Snot, you see, is the name Laurel’s classmates give her in ZZ Packer’s “Brownies,” a short story about 10-year-old girls at Camp Crescendo, a summer camp near Atlanta. The story opens with a racial conflict. A group of white girls, Troop 909, has just arrived at the camp and Arnetta, the ringleader of Snot’s Brownie troop, is sure one of the white girls called Daphne, the quietist member of Snot’s troop, the N-word.

“We can’t let them get away with that,” Arnetta says. “I say we teach them a lesson.”

By this Arnetta means that they should “kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909,” whom Arnetta calls “Caucasian Chihuahuas.” But this revenge plot gets derailed when it’s discovered that the members of Troop 909 are special-needs students. “Some of our girls are echolalic,” the Troop 909 leader says. “That means they will say whatever they hear, like an echo. . . . Not all of them have the most progressive parents, so if they heard a bad word, they might have repeated it.”

I won’t spoil this wonderful story for you, which can be found in ZZ Packer’s story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere -- available on the shelf in the Benicia Library just as soon as I check it back in -- but I will say that by the end of the story Snot learns a valuable lesson from Daphne about using niceness as an anecdote for the racism she finds everywhere she looks, in her own Brownie troop, in Troop 909, and in her father’s actions when he asks Mennonites, required by their religion to do whatever he asks, to paint his porch.

Arnetta’s skeptical and asks why he didn’t ask them to do more, to paint the entire house. “Why not ask for a hundred bucks?”

Because, Snot says, her father said that “it was the only time he’d have a white man on his knees doing something for a black man for free.”

Daphne wants to know if Snot’s father thanked the Mennonites when they were done.

“No,” Snot says, suddenly realizing that there is something mean in the world that she cannot stop.

But -- maybe I shouldn’t call Laurel Snot.

For the nastiness of Laurel’s nickname is a metaphor for the echolalic behavior that has become increasingly pervasive in our society. Sure there’s racism. How could there not be given the long struggle of African-Americans from slavery to an ever-enlarging freedom in the 21st century. Racism and racial stereotyping and xenophobia and immigrant bashing have a long American history. But there are more subtle maladies afflicting our body politic.

For example, too many news organizations have become, to borrow an analogy from the late, great Professor Neil Postman, Las Vegas-style show-business echo extravaganzas. Too many politicians have become ideological echo puppets dancing at the ends of illogical threads. And too many citizens, young and old, students and graduates, have become echo masters who repeat what they see, hear, Google, tweet, facebook and blog without critically assessing its truth or worth.

So maybe I shouldn’t be worried about how long it takes me to grade my students’ papers inasmuch as writing could save their lives.

For I’d like to believe that little by little my students, through their writing, will begin to understand what E. M. Forster meant when he wrote, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?”

By getting the small things right in their writing, by critically examining the validity of new and received views, my hope is that some of my students will arrive at Laurel’s epiphany: While you may not change the world, you can learn to use reason, reflection, compassion and introspection to quiet illogical, unethical, and hateful echoes.

And, of course, I also hope that Benicia.Patch.com will analyze and report rather than criticize and echo, for Benicia has long needed a publication that will help us understand our neighbors, our government, and the critical issues our community faces.
ZZ Packer, author of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, in which you can find the short story "Brownies."
Dave Badtke, who teaches English at Solano College, can be contacted at Dave@Badtke.com. Find his blog at Badtke.com and copies of this and older columns at QCounty.com.