March-April 2000 - Articles
Something to Say
It has taken me almost six years to write this article. Needless to say, I don't earn a living writing articles. You see, I had this misconception that writers write and non-writers do something else with their time. Compounding the problem was my definition of "writers." Writers were those people in school who could spell, punctuate, and turn in a well-written essay in 45 minutes. Writers were people who liked grammar. My performance in a myriad of English classes tells a sad tale. Shoot, Mrs. Tanner even laughed at me one day as I was looking up the umpteenth word of the day. You see, I can't spell worth beans. I could never write an essay in 45 minutes. I might get a first paragraph in that amount of time, but not a whole essay. With all this evidence there was little doubt: I was not a writer.
In 1992 I was working on our new computer, having replaced our Commodore 64 with a real one. I had just given birth to my third child and I was 32 years old. (You know, it was one of those moments when you make note of how old you are.) My husband was working behind me. I jumped up and asked, "DO YOU KNOW WHAT EDITORS DO?!?!" Well, the man is a college graduate - used to work in a print shop - who has written many papers, including one official Army Training Guidance manual. He calmly said "Yes, I do." My interrogation continued: "Do you realize that having an editor means that you don't have to know how to spell beans in order to write, you just have to have something to SAY?" He managed to mumble yes before I ran over his answer like a freight train. You see, I always have something to say.
I was furious. All those C-minuses made me think I wasn't conveying my ideas in any meaningful way. HA! All it meant was that I didn't have access to an editor. I didn't have time to write, re-read, let alone let someone else read and proof my work. I didn't have a technical editor to double-check my spelling and comma usage. As I stomped around the house so many memories come flooding back.
The worst memory was that of Mrs. Peterson calling me a liar about a seventh grade book report for English class. She didn't believe I had written the paper. My report was called "Ups and Downs," about the economic crash of 1876. This was the time of my "Civil War period" and everything I read that year was connected to the Civil War. She said, "No thirteen-year-old girl would find this book interesting," and she wanted to know who had written the report. I was so hurt and angry. I just sat there, for once in my life not saying anything. She gave me a D, because she couldn't prove I hadn't read the book, but she didn't believe I had written the report. I now realize that I had taken her message and absorbed it into my own being. My writing could not be taken seriously.
By 1992, we had been a family of unschoolers for five years. John Holt had entered my life eight years earlier and I had spent a great deal of time thinking and reading about education, learning, and life. The idea of "doing school" had been jettisoned and I was watching my two (three, if you count the baby) children explore the world. While working hard at creating an environment that would nourish and support my children's growth, I had inadvertently begun healing my own life.
One day, while I was reading Midwifery Today, I ran across a small section mentioning that the magazine had an area on America Online. I took the magazine to Greg and asked, "Can I get to this forum?" Such a simple question. He explained that we would have to buy the service, but that yes, our computer could get to that forum. And so we did.
It wasn't the midwifery forum that affected our lives, though. At that time America Online had a small homeschooling forum. It was a place to go to talk to other adults, when I had the time. It might be 3 AM, but if my babies were asleep, I could turn on the computer and read the bulletin boards. I could read about other moms struggling with the laundry, meals, and the need to feed their intellect. I found other unschoolers. I found intelligent, well-read women willing to talk about almost any topic imaginable. I could even talk about the economic crash of 1876 and no one ever thought I was a liar.
AOL added two more homeschooling areas. One was the Home Education Magazine forum. These areas became a second home for me. Birthing three babies in a little over four years meant that my free time was non-existent except for three minutes here or fifteen minutes there. The computer didn't care. The words on the screen could wait until I had time to read and write. I didn't really notice that I was writing. I was just talking with other moms.
I was asked to join an email loop, a loop full of writers. I was aghast. And intimidated. And giddy. It seems that Sandra and the others on the loop were not impressed with my writing ability either, but they liked what I had to say.
Then came that day in 1993. Helen Hegener of Home Education Magazine arrived in my email box. I can still remember the feeling of seeing her name on the screen. She wanted to know if she could use one of my comments from HEM's old AOL forum in the magazine. What? Huh? Sure, but my goodness! Check the spelling first! She said, "That's what editors are for." When Greg, my husband, confirmed her statement, life changed.
So why has it taken over six years to write this article? Once the realization of what editors are for took root, I had to spend time deconstructing those school messages and rebuilding my understanding of what writing is. What if I wrote this article and it was rejected? Wouldn't that just be another C-minus to add to the pile? Besides, my personal story of overcoming the damage school had inflicted, while interesting to me, might not be of help to other homeschoolers.
Well, that can't be true. Taking a good hard look at the messages we have absorbed from our school experiences must be done. Living and learning with our children demands that we evaluate the why of everything we do. In the area of writing, we need to ask why our children would need to write an essay in 45 minutes? Why would we need to give spelling tests? Dictionaries and other tools surround us. Wouldn't we just use them? Many of us will come up with different answers for these questions. The answers aren't nearly as important as the evaluation process.
The messages I received was, I suspect, not one my English teachers meant to send. They wanted me to learn to write well, but I heard, "If you can't do it well, don't do it." Thus letters were never written, not even to friends and relatives. I wasn't about to write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper that wasn't well written, so my voice in many matters was effectively silenced. I avoided jobs, real-life work, that would require much writing.
What I should have heard is, "You need an editor, a technician's help, because what you have to say is important." This is the message I want my children to absorb and make a part of themselves. What they have to say is important and I'm here to help them find ways to say it.
What messages are you sending your children about their writing? Is having something to say more important than all those grammar rules? Do you function as a kind and gentle editor? Or are you sending some of the same messages sent by my school teachers?
Creating a space for young writers to just write in is really all that is needed. Over time the desire to spell correctly and to create well-written work will bubble to the surface. You may have to wait though. You may have to wait until there is a desire to say something, a desire to be heard. So far, my children are not interested in writing stories or letters. Some children are born with a desire to write. Our other children should not be compared to them. Each child should be allowed to develop this skill on her own timetable.
Writing resources now fill our home: books like Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones and Beardsley's Writing with Reason. We have a little book called Plain English Handbook, published in 1959, that is my husband's final authority on grammar. (Notice it's his, not mine.) Write Source and Writer's Inc. materials for high schoolers are great. One sourcebook gives wonderful examples of student and professional level writing covering many types of writing. In my home, the parts of speech are only approached through Ruth Heller's beautiful books. Most importantly, we pay attention to how others use language, both written and spoken. Charles Kuralt was a childhood favorite. The word pictures woven by him created a deep connection to American life for me.
I was able to attend a seminar given by Richard Prystowsky this summer. If you have a chance to go hear him sometime, don't pass it up. He reminded us that writing could tap all of our senses. Fill your writing basket with pens of all sizes and shapes, pencils, markers, colored inks, colored and textured paper. Let more than just words carry your message. Doodle! We laughed at his rendition of a schoolteacher frowning at doodles. His admission that the doodles were sometimes the most interesting part of a paper gave me hope. Doodles I can do! Doodling may just lead you to that important thing you want to say.
Closing an essay has always been the hardest part for me. I'm a talker. I love to wander down tangents. If you were to visit me, upon leaving, I would be the one still talking to you as I walked you to your car. While writing, my mind is still swirling with tangents not yet explored and I struggle to end my thoughts.
I do wish Mrs. Tanner were alive to see just what kind of electronic spell checker has been created. I wish she were here to see this article, either in print or with its rejection slip stapled proudly to it. It matters not whether this article is published, as I am not a writer. I am just someone with something to say. And now I've said it.
© 2000, Lisa Bugg
HEM General Information
Subscribe to HEM