Posts Tagged ‘campus’


Okay, class — raise your hand if you noticed the unnecessary commas in the headline. Good for you. If you did notice, maybe it’s because you know all about the difference between that and which and how one signals a restrictive clause and the other a non-restrictive clause and how those two things need to be punctuated differently. Or maybe you didn’t know all that. Maybe you just know that it doesn’t look right.

We had just finished up this discussion like this in the advanced media writing class I’m teaching at Virginia Tech when a young woman (apparently with an unusually high tolerance for grammar and usage issues) asked me to explain the difference between who and whom.

“Well,” I began, “you have to understand the difference between subject and object.”

No sooner had I started than I sensed — more than heard — a collective groan. A quick glance around the room confirmed that, unlike the eager questioner, most of my students had already had their fill of language mechanics. Who, whommore like whatever, they seemed to be thinking.

“Can any of you explain this? When do you use who and when do you use whom?”

Not one hand went up. Not one word was spoken. In fact, the silence was so deep that I could make out the conversation of a couple of students walking down the hall outside the classroom. Apparently, someone named Troy was, like,  totally supposed to BE somewhere and he had, you know, like blown it off completely. Dude.

In that silent classroom, it became apparent to me that these students saw the task of writing in a very different way than I do. For them, it was all about prescriptive rules and how well you knew them, and those rules sometimes backed you into a corner, limiting your options. It’s either who or whom, and you have to make a choice, and if you don’t know which one it is, you’re, like, well … totally screwed.

I lowered my voice, so they would listen more closely.

“Can I let you in on a little secret? Something that professional writers do all the time?”

Maybe they didn’t actually lean forward, but it seemed like it.

“If you find yourself in a predicament like this, and you don’t quite know what’s the right way … write around it. Build another sentence that says the same thing in another way, a way that doesn’t put you at risk of making an embarrassing mistake.”

From the back of the room, a few students tittered nervously. Others exchanged glances, trying to gauge which way the please-the-teacher wind was blowing.

“I’m not kidding,” I told them, but I’m not sure they believed me. “You’re writers,” I told them, “or at least you want to be. Learn to use language and mechanics to suit your needs. It’s what writers do.”

It was nearly 5:15, and we wrapped up class by reviewing the AP Stylebook rules for who and whom: Who is the pronoun used for references to human beings and to animals with a name. It is grammatically the subject (never the object) of a sentence, clause or phrase …

I hope that some of them learned a lesson that day, but I can’t say for sure. They just zipped up their backpacks, shrugged into their Hokies sweatshirts, and skittered out of the door. It was late, and I’m sure they had to, like, totally be somewhere.


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Center Hall, Wabash CollegeThere are ten or so of us who have returned for the reunion, and we’re having drinks on the front porch of a fraternity house on a balmy summer’s evening in the Midwest, swapping stories from decades ago. A couple of wives are among the group, and they are smiling graciously — even as the stories occasionally slip toward the ribald. These women are either supremely patient or genuinely interested. To their great credit, I can’t really tell which.

In many of these stories, our collective remembrances line up, creating a kind of living breathing memory, alive for the first time in decades, right there on the front porch in the dying light, and we’re all grateful for the confirmation that it did happen, and that it happened in just the way we remember it. But not all the stories are like that.

At the moment, my old friend Charlie’s got the spotlight. Charlie’s always been a great storyteller. In the story he’s sharing — his hands in near-constant motion, both punctuating and illustrating — the lead character is a young man with a fondness for white painter’s overalls and a KISS poster above his study desk. All around me, friends are smiling and laughing as they remember this young man, and as they do so, their eyes turn to me.

“No way,” I say. I’m sure they have me confused with someone else, but the more I insist they are wrong, the clearer their memories become. Yes, really, they say. It was me. Eventually, the cumulative detail in their recountings knocks the plaque off of some small corner of my brain, and I recall not only the white overalls, but the green and white polo shirt I liked to wear underneath them.

This was not quite what I was expecting. I mean I knew I would get glimpses into both the past and present lives of my friends. That was something I was really looking forward to, and I was not disappointed. As I said in an early post, it turns out that they are as interesting as I remember them, and their lives bear that judgment out. But I hadn’t anticipated this other phenomenon, the one that began there on the front porch and carried on late into the evening and early morning hours.

As it turns out, in some small way, our younger selves remain alive in the memories of our old friends, and if ever they have occasion to share those memories, we may catch a glimpse of a vaguely familiar stranger there.

Some of these glimpses give me pause, for the details of the stories would seem to call into question my judgment, my ethics, my morality, and more.

But other remembrances strike a different, and thankfully, more positive note. A former classmate recalled a time when I unwittingly spoke for the whole class by raising an insistent and firm voice of dissent when we were being asked by a young and inexperienced assistant professor to swallow some cockamamie academic theory whole.

Either way, these stories are instructive, for I’m encouraged to see how far I’ve progressed from my impetuous youth, and both surprised and heartened to see how closely I’ve adhered to a set of core values that I developed during those years.

In both cases, I have my friends — and the occasion of a thirty-year reunion — to thank for it.

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For some reason, it had never occurred to me that today would be anything more than just another day. I had a couple of extra hours in the morning — campus offices didn’t open until 10 AM — and I had hoped to use that time to catch up on a couple of things around the house. Yet almost immediately, I felt a bit off my game — aggravated and unsettled by the smallest things. My daughter’s breakfast dishes in the sink. The house painters showing up. The dog barking, barking, barking. For some reason, I just felt incredibly frustrated, and inexplicably sad.

Even as I write that, I’m struck by how foolish it seems. Today is, of course, April 16th.

Here’s something you have to understand — most of the time, I do a pretty good job at refusing to think much about that time two years ago when so many lives were lost, and so many, many more were changed. For better or worse, it’s what I’ve learned to do with those troubling memories of the days spent in the trenches with my colleagues¬† — wrangling the press, trying to stay on top of the constant flow of information, writing and rewriting and re-rewriting talking points, answering the incessantly clattering phones in the “war room.” It just went on and on and on, and all of it was being played out against a backdrop of unspeakable, unimaginable tragedy.

It was, frankly, more than I could process at the time, so I did what many others did. I focused on the job at hand. I did the work. And I let that whole processing thing run its course.

Over the last two years, I’ve put a lot behind me. I no longer feel the need to walk around the semi-circle of engraved HokieStones on the Drillfield whenever I happen to be nearby. I’m able to walk comfortably through the conference center without bristling at the memory of the crush of hundreds of reporters, hungry for the slightest shred of news. And I’m able to talk to those who lost children or spouses without trying to imagine the depth of their profound grief.

In my own way, I guess I’d managed to convince myself that I had it licked. That no matter how that experience may have changed me and no matter how permanent those changes may be, it was all behind me. So when I woke up this morning, I fully imagined it would be just another day.

So wrong. So very very wrong.

All across campus today, people are gathering in remembrance, and while all those events have their origins in tragedy, they are marked on this day with hope — hope for peace, hope for resolution, hope for redemption. But even though I share that hope, I don’t think I’ll be joining in at any of the ceremonies. Remembrance is easy enough for me.

It’s forgetting I have such a hard time with.

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Every day they come. Usually three or more a day, substantially adding to the bulk of mail that gets stuffed in our curbside box. Some come in plain envelopes, some in gaudier expensive mailers. Some contain color-rich trifold brochures, others a simple letter on high-end stock. Each one makes a case for the uniqueness of what they offer, yet they are all remarkably similar — both to one another, and to every other direct mail offer we get. The difference is that these are all addressed to my son, who recently had the poor sense to do well on a standardized national test and thus open the floodgates of the college recruitment process.

Not so many years ago, I wrote these earnest pieces for a couple of different schools, and while I can’t say that I necessarily believed everything I wrote for those places, I did believe that somehow my words could capture a prospective student’s attention — at least enough for them to take a step to further the dialogue and thereby increase the volume of mail we sent them.

It’s a time-honored tradition in higher-ed marketing, this war of the mailboxes, and while it seems like an anachronism in this day and age — and schools are clearly moving on to newer technologies for recruiting — our daily mail provides ample evidence that it still works, or at least that old habits die hard.

All of these mailings conjure up images of the purity of intellectual pursuit set against the backdrop of meaningful personal relationships and a rich and vibrant social life. There’s usually a hint of ivy in there somewhere, too.

But tell me — is that what your college experience was like? Did it match up with the literature?

I’m grateful that I attended a small rigorous college but, despite the ivy and brick campus, my experience there hardly lived up to what I imagined it would be when I arrived as a freshman. I learned to think there — something I’d never thought would need to be taught. But I didn’t really learn much about what to think about. That came much, much later. Over the years, I’ve used that thinking skill again and again and again — far more than I recall ever using it while I was there, but I’ve sometimes struggled — and still do — with what exactly I should be thinking about.

Maybe that was just me, struggling with my own lassitude and uncertainty about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Surely today’s students — more driven, more connected, more accustomed to the advantages higher education offers — have a different experience, right?

Different? Yes. Better? Well …

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I’ve written a fair amount about words here, and about their power, but last night I was reminded of how much weight language can carry. Two words, the subject line of a text message to my cell phone at 8:17 PM. Two words that simultaneously alerted me to a current tragedy, and dredged up memories of an experience that no amount of words could adequately describe. Two words, as blunt and straightforward as the act which necessitated their use: campus murder.

No reasonable person would assume that, for those of us who lived through and with the tragedy of April 16, 2007, life would ever be the same. Yet, day in and day out, I’ve learned to perpetuate that illusion. I’ve become adept at the graceful sidestep. I taught myself to avoid the slippery slope that remembering those events forces me to traverse. There are, of course, moments when I must remember — when I visit with my friends who lost a daughter, when I have a casual conversation with the woman from my daughter’s Girl Scout troop who lost a husband, when I have a meeting in the alumni conference center, a beautiful facility that was overrun by more than 700 journalists during those days.

At other moments, I reflect more deliberately, walking slowly around the semi-circle of Hokie Stone markers outside the main administrative building on campus, each engraved with the name of one now gone. Or, as I did this morning, browsing through the memorial pages on the university’s web site. But these are moments I seek out, moments that I’ve learned to take in small doses the way one builds up an immunity to a pathogen by deliberate, controlled exposure.

The most troubling thing about last night was the chain reaction those two simple words triggered, a reaction both unwelcome and unbidden. And, of all the vestiges of April 16th, this is perhaps the one that plagues me the most. Those events marked me. They changed my psyche, permanently and indelibly, and changed it in such a way that even these two unrelated and vastly different events are linked. They changed me in such a way that those two words, texted to my cell phone last night, pulled past events forward into the present, and invested present events with a weight and sadness far beyond their measure.

A few moments ago, an emergency vehicle sped through the intersection just outside my office window, sirens blaring, and my attention was drawn from my own here-and-now to what might have happened somewhere else. And in those moments, I began to imagine, again, the worst. It’s a foolish reaction, and one that, thankfully, passes quickly. But it’s one that I’ve come to recognize, one that I would gladly never have again, and one that brings to mind two more words that I hope one day to use with conviction.

Enough. Already.

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