WARNING!!!! Keep them AWAY from the Thesaurus or they Will Try to Mess With You

“What’s the difference, teacher?”

“Well, some animals can’t ‘amble’. A snake, for instance, or an ant. It’s a kind of walking that’s slow and loose and hasn’t got any destination, necessarily. Some animals often amble — like a giraffe, a horse, a cow. A sheep could, but probably doesn’t.”

“Why snake can’t amble?”

“C’mon Rahim, that’s just silly. You can figure that out.”

“Rahim, a snake can’t walk,” whispers helpful Korean girl.

“Oh, right. My bad! But ant can walk. Why can’t ant amble?”

“It’s not their nature. They have these little short legs, they move very fast all the time and they always have a reason to go somewhere.”

“That’s true, teacher. Can you amble?”



Allegory of the Cave

I wonder if everyone who retires from a consuming and intense career that they love needs a lot of time, not just to deal with the big change retirement involves, but to fully understand what they did for however long they did it.

I taught words, writing, ultimately, mostly freshman composition, but that isn’t all I taught. My career — once I left grad school — was first as a teacher of English as a second language.

Most teachers who taught ESL back in the beginnings of the profession (where I joined it in the early 1980s) were linguistics majors, very different from what I was, a literature major. My perspective on language was different. Linguists study the language per se, and I had studied how people used the language to express meaning to others.

I still think that’s what language is for.

I did this for almost 15 years, and I taught every language skill — reading, listening, writing, grammar, conversation — to international students from all over the world, but I did not fit in with my colleagues and, ultimately, as the field grew into a “field” and there were advance degrees offered in Teaching English as a Second Language, I was pushed out.

That was fine with me. I was ready to move on, and I did; I made a transition to teaching native speakers. It was a fun transition because, for a while, I had a foot in two worlds. I taught after-work classes in San Ysidro, a town on the border of Mexico, to adults, Mexicans, and I loved it. In the early mornings, I taught freshman comp. During the day I continued to labor at my day job at the international school until I had enough hours at local community colleges to fill the mosaic of financial necessity.

Last night, as I watched the ending of the 2000 film, Longitude, I realized what I did for 35 years.

I taught ONE thing.

I taught Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Often I taught it directly — and other times I taught it indirectly. It was the reason I was in front of the classroom. Last night, watching Longitude, listening to the character of John Harrison make, as an old man, his very impassioned plea to a panel of academics who had no idea what a “simple” mechanic was doing or what it meant, I heard myself. I heard words I never said to the people I worked for. In case you don’t know the story, John Harrison was an 18th century carpenter and clock maker who developed — and built — a clock that would work at sea and establish accurate lontitude.

The question in life that is most important — to me — is “What’s real, anyway?” This is not a literary question. In a sense, it is a science question. It was the question perplexing pre-longitude mariners, phrased as, “Where ARE we REALLY?” John Harrison was involved in a competition with astronomers. His continual fight was between his very practical and universal chronometer that could answer that question vs. what the astronomers BELIEVED to be real (but wasn’t).

That is the question of The Allegory of the Cave. It can take a lifetime even to get a glimmering of reality which is objective, does not depend on personal preference or opinion, but is the truth. I love that question.

I believed that a good teacher was a teacher who loved teaching. I did. I believed (still believe) in the power of inspiration — my inspiration and the power to inspire my students. As a teacher, I questioned the value of discipline when there was no inspiration, no reason behind the practice. (For me, beauty was reason enough, but it is not for everyone.) I believed that in my classroom, my students should be encouraged to seek their own reasons for learning. I believed that anything else is the donkey chasing the carrot.

Last night, watching this film, I thought of all the times I argued with students who worked only for a grade. I thought of the times I drew the donkey on the board and said, “Is this you? If is is, is it all right with you?”

And heard, “You ought to be an artist, professor!”

I thought I was.

I thought of the times I was really teaching The Allegory of the Cave and saw my students become excited by ideas that are thousands of years old. I thought of the kid who carried me out of the classroom while we were dramatizing the dialogue, he was that involved. We were at the part where Socrates said, “They must be carried or dragged out of the cave against their will.” I was playing the part of a prisoner, fastened to a wall, unable to turn my head.

I thought of how the light DOES hurt. I saw the struggles I had with students over the years who were uncomfortable because of where they were going, what they were asking and how it shook their perspective of the world. This happened more and more toward the end of my career when their pre-college/pre-university schooling had not prepared my students to yearn for a challenge. “I don’t know why I should work this hard. I don’t want to risk the carrot. I don’t want to hurt like this. I am afraid.”

(I also thought about how hurt and frightened I was when I thought I might be finished teaching, I thought of how reluctantly I had reached that understanding and how it was not until I had no choice that I saw how great it was to be finished. With or without a broken heart. It was time. )

I thought of the many students who loved The Allegory of the Cave. I recited their names to myself last night and tried to remember their faces. I thought about experiences we had shared, and I felt wonderful.

Then I wondered why I had cared so much about the question. It wasn’t really the easy way to go as a teacher, and I was constantly the rope in a tug-o-war between bosses who thought I was god’s gift to teaching and bosses who thought I was insane. I realized it’s because of what I was teaching and who I am. I was a writer teaching writing, not an academic teaching formulas, systems and rhetoric of how to write.

It’s not the same. I saw that for me writing could never be just just a matter of a five paragraph essay and perfect grammar. It’s sitting down in with one’s own ideas and learning if they are shadows or light. It was — is — running into the cave to get the people out.

Back in the Goodle Days of Teaching Freshman Comp

As many people know, I was once an English teacher. I taught composition, critical thinking and business communication. Once in a GREAT WHILE (like twice in two decades) I was “allowed” to teach summer literature. I spent 35 years of my life reading student papers. What’s more (and possibly strange) I liked it. I liked teaching post-adolescents and I never got tired of it. Everything I ended up hating about “teaching” really had little to do with teaching or students.

There is a thing about college freshmen and sophomores, it’s a good thing, but it’s also challenging, funny and annoying, they think they’re VERY VERY VERY smart and that they created the world and everything in it when they hit 18. I thought this, too, at that time of my life, so I have and always have had total sympathy with the hubris of youth. Now I know two things about it 1) their frontal lobes are not completely grown, 2) if we didn’t feel that way as young people the world would never change.

They wrote papers and they confused words. They confused words because they wanted to use big words. They had a few things going on in their minds. 1) they wanted to use big words because they were smart people and smart people use big words, 2) they wanted to impress their English teacher and everyone KNOWS English teachers are impressed by big words, and, 3) you get good grades by impressing your teacher. The advent of “spell check” made this problem even more interesting. :p

I think “plethora” is probably the favorite big word of college freshmen to use in their English essays. I’ve read that word almost exclusively on freshman English papers. One student even said, “Did you like how I used ‘plethora’?”

They also liked to get on their soapboxes. In order that they learn to be logical in presenting their arguments, they were required to write a PERSUASIVE PAPER on a controversial topic. I made rules. They could not write about legalizing pot, capital punishment or abortion. “Why, professor?”

“Well, here’s the deal. I don’t want to read a bunch of papers about legalizing pot, capital punishment or abortion. You gotta’ see this from my side. You’re going to write ONE paper. I’m going to take home 30 papers from each of my 3 freshmen comp classes. I don’t want to read 90 papers on abortion, would you?”


“All right then. Come up with something YOU really care about.”

“I care about that.”

“Find something else.” If a student were too invested in one of those three topics I was pretty sure they already had a paper and works cited page, probably from high school. There was also the reality that there are  9 million freshman papers available for sale on those three topics… I hated dealing with plagiarism.

If you have never sat down to a stack of freshman level persuasive papers, you have not lived (huh?). 🙂 Usually they were pretty OK. Occasionally they were abysmal, often they were cliché, sometimes they were inspiring. There was always at least one paper that took it upon itself to defend Freedom and the American Way. Almost always that paper told me that it was my right to peruse happiness.



Bidness Communication

For half my career I taught Bidness Communication at a very large university. I taught upper and lower division and, for a while, there was talk of me taking a graduate class. But that (naturally) didn’t happen as I do not have a PhD in Bidness. Or an MBA, for that matter.

I’ve been working on a proposal for a small company over the last few days and it brought it all back to me. The main lesson I had to “impart” (fancy word) was “Know your audience. They do NOT live in your head.” This is especially true of written communication. As I communicate with the people I’m writing this for I see that playing out. In my communication with them, I try to make sure I give them the whole story because we’re NOT face-to-face speaking with each other. We don’t even know each other. They, of course, go blindly into every email they send me and it’s my job to decode what they were thinking.

It’s also been interesting working when I do not have to. Yesterday I remembered what it was like to have to give low grades in order to keep my job. I remembered how unhappy I was toward the end with all of it. Teaching had become “bidness.”

I am doing good work on this project, but I know it’s not my project. Nothing hangs on it. Even payment, which, of course, I want, but if I don’t get it, I won’t be “behind.” I won’t be happy, but I won’t be facing foreclosure. That’s really freedom.

Anyway, back to it.


Casting Away Stones

Recently, I was looking on the website of the local university for a concert I’d seen advertised. I didn’t find the concert. I found a job. The job was written for me. My “Get classes!!!” mentality went instantly into action. I immediately got my CV. I updated it and refreshed it then set about finding out what else I had to do to get this job. I thought of how nice the money would be for things like repairing the garage and paying my credit card. I thought it would be fun to teach literature online.

Luckily, it was 11 at night and I wasn’t going to stay up and put a job search packet together, so I left everything where I could find it the next morning. I was about to put my computer to sleep when I was hit by a massive satori.

“Let someone else do it. Let some young person with a fresh MA have that job. Let them start their life. It’s their turn. It’s your turn NOT to do it. You have a place to live and an income. You don’t need it.” 



Ecclesiastes 3


“Kennedy, You’re Weird”

“I never feel like I get any closer to you,” she’d say. When the Carpenters came out with their song, “Close to You,” she’d say, “That’s how I think of you. You’re difficult to reach.”

It made me feel guilty, but I didn’t understand what she meant. I was just me. I was just a kid. What were other people like?

“I never feel as if I really know you, or touch you. You’re always somewhere else.” Echoes but this was the great love of my life, not my mom.

What in the world did they want?

Now I believe the “complaints” came from fundamental differences in personality that I didn’t know about until I required hundreds of business majors (my students) over a period of years take the Myers/Briggs Personality Inventory as part of a report project. My goal was to:

1) teach them how to write a business report as a group project,
2) teach them about different kinds and levels of research,
3) expose them to a work problem — there were two; one was using personality tests in hiring which is done fairly often and the other using personality tests for team building, also used fairly often,
4) give those who were unhappy in their major a chance to question their direction if they wanted to.

I learned about me.

Some of my students rejected the tests out-of-hand saying, “It’s like a horoscope” to which I replied, “Sure if you get your ‘sign’ by answering questions about yourself then it is. I agree.”

Most of my students thought the project was kind of fun. One of them said, “Whoa, I’m changing my major to ceramics.” That was the ONE kid out of thousands who had the same MBTI type as I have. INFJ, (Introverted/iNtuitive/Feeling/Judging) statistically the rarest personality type. No, that doesn’t make me think I’m special. It actually makes me special. Sorry. So all the people who have said over the years, “Kennedy, you’re a freak,” knew what they were talking about. 😉

A group of business majors is already a self-selected, elite group of people who are unlikely to be introverts, and very few were. Most were men, my direct opposite ESTP  (Extraverted/Sensint/Thinking/Perceiving) and ESTJ with one or two “accountants” ISTJ sprinkled in. Since the class wasn’t required for accounting majors, there were never many of those. Once in a while there was an “N”, an intuitive person, usually a girl, who was tuned in to the feelings of others. All of these types are very common in our world. They are the people that keep the world going every single day.

Their personality types were extremely outgoing. They were not prone to self-reflection, not aware of the feelings of others or overly concerned about them. Extroverted, Sensing and Thinking, they went through life without a lot of interpersonal awareness. This is all a way to say they were not the most sensitive people in the world and were strongly ego driven. I, as an introverted, intuitive am almost always aware of what’s going on with other people and I wear my heart on my sleeve. They could hurt my feelings easily. They would say things to me and get in a physical proximity to me that were very challenging. When I understood who they were, I realized it wouldn’t hurt them at all if I gave them back what they were giving me, and it didn’t. They expected it. They gave it to each other. It was the way things were supposed to be in their worlds, from their perspectives. I stopped defending myself ever.

“Why did you give me a D?”

“I didn’t give you a D. You earned a D. If you don’t like the D, you can talk to me about what you could have done better, otherwise, I don’t have anything to say.”

“OK. What could I have done better.” Challenge, provocation dripping from his/her voice.

“I’ll tell you if you’re really going to listen, but if you’re just angry at me right now make an appointment to come and talk to me next week.”

“I’m angry.”

“OK. Come see me Tuesday before class. I don’t talk to angry students.”

I don’t think those kids ever knew what it took from me to be the classroom teacher whose classes they fought to get into or the teacher in the office who sat with them for hours helping them learn to see their own work, their own selves, take responsibility for their own achievement. They naturally figured I was like them, deriving boundless energy from proximity to other human beings.

Until I had done this project with several classes, I’d been skeptical about the tests. I’d seen it simply as a good project that would interest my students at this moment in their lives — 19 is all about self-discovery. I became a believer when I saw how knowing the overall personalities of a class of business majors could help me teach them.

We are not all the same. That “special little snowflake” thing has more than a germ of truth to it, but we’re stuck with the other people in the world. From this experience, I saw why I’m hard to be close to. I need a lot of psychic and physical privacy. I have a lot going on inside my head. I thought everyone was like this, but my 10,000 business majors taught me that is not the case. They also taught me how to compensate, how to reach others, and that was an enormous gift I wish I’ld learned earlier in my life.



Rock Star

I got an ovation once. It was at the end of a student show at the end of the term at the international school where I was teaching. I was thrilled, surprised, honored by the ovation. Proud of my students and of myself. The group in the auditorium — students — stood up and yelled, “Martha! Martha! Martha!” But now I don’t even remember the amazing thing they did under my Professor Keatingesque tutelage!

For some reason, for years I was kind of a “rock star” to students. My classes were “not like the other teachers’.” I don’t know how they were different, but… For a while when I walked across campus students would cheer. It’s true. It’s weird, but true. I’m a humble person, and I found it kind of embarrassing and still kind of cool.

I wasn’t even completely aware of it as a phenomenon until, one day, one of my former colleagues at the international school asked me, “How’s teaching at the university? Are you still a rock star?”

That’s when I started noticing it. I also began noticing the way my colleagues looked at me.

We all know teaching is a serious business. Teachers aren’t supposed to have fun and students aren’t supposed to have fun. If the teacher and the students ARE having fun, no one’s learning anything. My experience over the years showed me that teachers are often among the most conventional and unimaginative purveyors of social norms. Thinking about that some more, I began to see that’s what’s expected of teaching. A teacher’s job is to keep the values of society intact. A teacher’s job is not to challenge and provoke and inspire. I began to see that clearly in the response of my colleagues to me.

If students do well in your class and get high grades, you’re an easy grader NOT an effective teacher. If students do Hamlet  as an extended role play, you’re not teaching Shakespeare. If, in a class that lasts 4 hours, your remedial writing students turn out a complete essay, you have failed to teach them discipline.

I viewed teaching as a dance. The students were my partners and we were trying to get through the song with as much grace and joy as we could. I believed nothing was too hard for them IF they wanted to do it. I believed some things that were difficult were so good and so important that they needed to deal with them — but I’d help them. I believed they were human beings, and, as most were 19, they were human beings in search of self not in search of society’s expectations of them.

I’m glad I was a rock star. It’s kind of hard to imagine at this point, but it really happened. And there are students out there — now in their 30s or 40s — who know that some of our best friends are “dead friends” (exist for us between the covers of books) and that the Crossopterygii was our ancestral hero.


There is Nothing More than This

A teacher is the carrier of a baton. Most of the time, we never know who grasps it as we pass by, but once in a while something happens and this morning  I woke up to the most amazing thing, messages on Facebook and comments here on WordPress that needed my approval. What?

I got an early Christmas — and the BEST — present today. Fifteen years ago I taught a young man — a kid — he was 17 — in a summer intro to literature class.  He had — at that point — never studied literature. He asked me outside the classroom if I thought he could do the class even though he’d just gotten out of high school. He didn’t just do the class. He fell in love with literature and with Goethe and then with German. His dad was German; his mom Mexican. One of HIS students found my blog post in which I had written about him as he was long ago and she wrote me this:

Hello, Ms. Kennedy,
Your former student, Prof. Schorsch Kaffenberger is my world history professor at a college I attend (I found this blog from a year ago by googling his name to find his office). Professor Kaffenberger must have been an extraordinary student for him to be remembered after 15 years. He’s one of my coolest and most supportive professors. 🙂

This student was exceptional in many ways, mostly in his courage and passion for learning, his curiosity and openness to all that was new. In that first class (I taught him in a few classes) he was shy and young, but stepped forward to read lines from Oedipus when no one else would. He took what I had to give and he ran with it. That his student describes him as “cool” and “supportive” means the world to me.

I might have always had other dreams and aspirations, but when I turned that corner in 1976 and became a teacher, all the other dreams and aspirations took second place. In my heart lives the hope that the people who grasped the baton handed me by my teachers carry it into the future with love, faith and passion. There is really no treasure worth more than this.






But My English Teacher Said…

It’s a cold morning here in Heaven. The sand truck has been through town and improved the traction on the US Highway that happens to be my street. I wish they’d been through a lot sooner, like yesterday afternoon, but if wishes were horses etc.

Today is the big Christmas doings in my little town. Santa is bilocating in the bowling alley and the local hotel this morning. Following that, there is a Holiday Bazaar (craft fair). When dusk falls, there is a parade and then this evening a concert by a pretty famous (in Colorado) cowboy band at the auditorium build during the ‘3os by the WPA. It’s a panoply of diversions, an array of Christmas crafts, a deluge of delights.

Panoply is an English teacher kind of word, a word I’ve often read in student homework mixed in with “plethora”. Reading student essays, I could almost see the wheels in their minds turning, “How can I get an A?” and the thesauri on their computers burning up.

I know some English teacher had said to them, “Expand your vocabularies so you can express your ideas more clearly!” I know this because mine had said this to me. To some this advice translated into “Using big words will impress my teacher,” and to others it translated into, “OK, that’s a good idea.” I think the motivation depended, usually, on how much (and what) that student read for fun.

It was always cute to run across one of these words, and not all that easy to have to bring down the hatchet, “Dude, here’s the deal. When you write, you want to use words other people know.”

“But my English teacher said…”

My PhD

My working life was spent in academia — in fact my life from the age of 18 to 62 was spent in the world of universities. Even my non-teaching job was doing PR for a private college of law. I recently worked as editor — and, it turned out, adviser — to a woman who’s big dream in life is getting a PhD and being “academic.” She has no aptitude for this whatsoever, though she does superlative work in her field. I personally do not understand her drive, especially as, all the way through school, no one compelled her to learn academic skills.

I’ve hated this job but because I believe in her project, I persevered.

But it made me think about my own PhD.

I was essentially ejected from my masters program after two years. Those they felt had talent (or fit in the department) got a third year to dedicate to research. I wasn’t offered this. I was told I was not a “good fit” and that was that. A third year would have been nice since it meant another stipend and two classes to teach, but I found a full-time job. I’d gone to grad school in the first place because I wanted to write my thesis. I had a subject and I loved it and that was that. I managed to attract the attention of the best possible thesis adviser (for me) Dr. Robert D. Richardson, Jr. and we worked together very, very well. He understood me. But, when I asked him if I should go for a PhD, he said, “No, not you. Do you want to spend the rest of your life grading student papers?”

Well, actually, I kind of did. I loved the classroom and I loved teaching writing. Crazy, I know.

“You’re a writer. You have talent. You’re not an academic.”

The way he said it felt like a compliment. And, then, too, my dad always said there was nothing a person with a PhD could do that a person with an MA couldn’t do — and he proved it throughout the course of his life. What you get with the MA are skills to do research and practice whatever art you’ve pursued. My dad didn’t stop learning when he walked down the aisle with his light blue liberal arts cape and neither did I.

The department head — who’d thrown me out — had expressed surprise to see I’d finished my thesis. I got my MA, my family came all the way from Montana to witness the event, I had a great time at the graduation ceremony because my job at the law school meant I knew the mucky-mucks of the university. The best part — for me — was my dad had earned his MA at the same university and our theses would be cataloged next to each other in the library.

But it stuck in my head, “You’re not an academic. You’re a writer.”

The thing is, I had to earn a living, and in the passage of time the question of a PhD came up again. I went back and took the GRE. I didn’t do great. It hit me in the middle of an incredibly absurd multiple choice test on literature that the exam was bogus. At a certain point I sped through the thing, answered all the questions I knew, filled in the ones I was somewhat sure of and then marked the ones I didn’t know. I spent 30 minutes on a three hour exam and still scored an 85%, high enough that schools did look at me.

As they were looking at me, I was looking at them. I had no burning project pushing me back to school. It was just a matter of getting that “terminal” degree and hopefully a tenured job. I was admitted to a university in San Diego, and looked at the program. I saw from the course offerings that the study of literature no longer had any meaning to me. I was not the person to study the critical analysis of this or that critic. I was never going to be a post-modernist or a deconstructionist or any of the current trends in wanking. I didn’t have $30k, least of all to spend three or four years incarcerated with Derrida and his ilk. I was always going to read beautiful poetry and weep at its beauty and truth. I would never ‘get’ Kafka or Heidegger. I would always want a “story” and care about the sounds of words. I would always find history more compelling, the lives of people more intriguing, than I would ever find “literature.” All the things that had made me a misfit in my masters program were alive and well inside me, still. And so I closed the door on that adventure knowing I would write.

I still didn’t know what, but the most unlikely series of events led me to THE STORY.

A few years ago I presented a paper on the Medieval Leper at a conference. My then boss — a fantastic guy — read it. He said, “Wow. This is masterful. Why don’t you have a PhD?” He had one and, I guess, felt that a PhD was a requirement for doing “masterful” work. I said I just hadn’t had the funds at the time I wanted to pursue one. Only partly true, but just as I do not want anyone disrespecting me and my hard won achievements, I would never negate his.

And so my friend is a step closer to her PhD and I helped. I hope it make it easier for her to achieve the things in real life that she hopes for.