Thursday, January 31, 2008

Punctuality (100x11)

I do not want to write about punctuality. Truth to tell, I am not all that crazy about assigned topics in the first place, their primary pedagogical purpose being, so far as I can tell, to allow teachers, and in the best case scenario, the students as well, to compare apples to apples, squash to squash, lightning bolt to lightning bolt. “Look at what Amanda did with punctuality! Isn’t that cool?” All of which is well and good: this is how we learn to write, by broadening our sense of the possibilities. But not for me, not today. Maybe tomorrow.

Process Reflection: I seem to be getting a lot of my writing work done when I’m in that zone between being half awake and half asleep. At 4:30 this morning I woke up and as I was trying to get back to sleep I got to thinking about the topic for today’s assignment. Until yesterday, I didn’t even know that the students in Barbara’s class, where I got the idea for this little 30 day exercise, were using topics. But yesterday I finally figured out how to find the class blog and there it was, the topic for the day, and I thought, okay, maybe I’ll try that. So I actually did some thinking about punctuality as a topic, and this morning as I lay in bed trying unsuccessfully to get back to sleep, I even had a story taking shape in my head about the time when I was a newly-married student teacher in Nanakuli and invited my cooperating teacher and her husband over for dinner at 6:30. We had dinner on the table at the appointed time; they showed up at 7:20. That was my first introduction to the concept of “Hawaiian time,” which is anywhere from an hour to two weeks past whatever it says on the clock. But there was this other voice in my head that was saying, Nah, I don’t want to go there.

I finally figured out that I wasn’t going to get back to sleep before it was time to get up anyway, so I hauled myself out of bed and opened my journal and the first sentence that came out of my pen was “I do not want to write about punctuality,” so I said to myself, there, okay, let’s see where that leads. (I was not unaware that in beginning that way I was in fact writing about punctuality, albeit in an obliquely oppositional way. Which leads us to one of those tricky existential questions: can you fulfill an assignment by making the decision not to fulfill the assignment? Hmm. I wonder…) Anyway, at that point my writerly focus shifted, briefly, to punctuation. (Etymologically related to punctuality, via the Latin punctum, which means “point.” Does that count?) In the second sentence, I got interested in the cadences of the sentence, the interruptive, additive qualities of the emerging voice (not, of course, unlike my own, when I am holding forth, as I can’t help but do (there, I’m doing it again)), which is what led to all those commas.

So then I was up over the 50 word mark, more than halfway home, and so I shifted over to the computer and typed up what I had and added what I thought I wanted to add and did a word count and oops, I was at 122, so I had to go back and work on a more compact dismount. Got it down to 98 words and had two more to go, and then couldn’t resist adding “Maybe tomorrow,” as my little punctuality joke. So now it’s just about exactly an hour since I stumbled out of bed and I’ve got my assignment done. Time to get started on my day. Have to leave for school promptly at 7:00.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Alphanumerics (100x10)


One: Finger. Moon. Obelisk. The self in isolation.
Two: Victory. Peace. The self in the mirror. Horns. Love.
Three: A pitchfork. A stool. The Letter W. A crowd.
Four: Picket fence. Sturdy chair or table. Hair standing on end.
Five: A Handful. Greetings. Kindergarten turkey. Stop!
Six: Two hands now. Old enough to know better. Cousin of G.
Seven: Adze. Reason. In group, out group. Imbalance. Luck.
Eight: Open and shut. Snowman. Two by four. Enough. Infinity.
Nine: Perfect square. Tic-tac-toe. Oddness. The end of the line.
Ten: On and off. Skinny and fat. Personal Best. Starting Over.

Process Reflection: Just a game. I started with the idea of the sequence of numbers from one to ten, perhaps because this is the tenth post in the current series. I started by looking at my fingers and trying to think analogically, and then broke out sideways from there, thinking about the shape of the number, the contexts in which it appears, its associations. Most of which I could only gesture at, given the phrase-based format I fell into and decided to stay with. By then end of my first runthrough I had about 50 words, and the need to get to a hundred kept me inside the sandbox for a while, adding, tinkering. There are a lot of better examples of this sort of thing out there, like “Bestiary for the Fingers of My Right Hand” from our current poet laureate Charles Simic which can be found here if you’re interested.

The 100-word constraint is interesting. In some cases, like yesterday, it's quite hard to pare down what I want to say to meet the limit. In other cases, like this one, the need to push up to 100 words opens up new territory and winds up changing the original look and feel of the writing.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Confusion (100x9)

Confusion: five card stud, high-low, roll your own. You get two down cards, and turn one up. Bet. Another down card, roll one, bet.. Repeat twice, until you have one down card and four up. Key concept: your hole card and all others like it in your hand, are wild. Another twist: now you can replace one card, up or down, for a buck. Bet, then declare: one chip in you hand, you’re going high; none, low; two, scoop. But if you try to scoop, you must win both ways, or you win nothing. Final bet. Let’s see the cards.

Process Reflection: This is the compact, freeze dried, 100-word explanation of my favorite poker game, which we call "Confusion" for reasons which become increasingly clear every time you play it. Poker purists sometimes object to wild card games, but this is a game that combines strategy and luck. It's a game which involves a lot of strategic moves as you are creating your hand (by rolling your up cards and choosing which card to discard) and leads to dramatic and surprising showdowns. In the hands pictured, for example, the apparent heart flush (5-6-8-K) looks like a loser to the apparent full house. But if the down card in the heart flush is a king, it's really a 5-6-7-8-9 straight flush, which would usually be a pretty good hand, except that the hand at the top of the screen (Jd, Jc, Qc, Kc) could in fact be a royal flush if the down card is a jack. And worse, the apparent full house (K-K-7-7) may very well be five of a kind, if the down card is a seven or a king. The heart flush is a guaranteed winner for half the pot, since it's the best low hand, but if he gets greedy and tries to scoop, he'll lose everything if either of the other two people have made their hands.

Full disclosure: those of you who are paying close attention to the picture have probably figured out that this isn't a game of confusion at all. It's a game of six card Anaconda, with two cards left to roll. But the picture serves to illustrate the possibilities.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Found Poem (100x8)

Lost in Love

He knew she was there
by the joy and fear
that overwhelmed his heart.
She stood at the other end of the rink,
talking to a lady.

There was nothing very special
in her dress, nor in her pose;
but she was as easy to recognize
in that crowd as a rose among nettles.
Everything was lit up by her.
“Can I really step down there
on the ice and go over to her?”
he thought.

The place where she stood
seemed to him unapproachably holy,
and there was a moment
when he almost went away —
he was so filled with awe.

Process Reflection: I thought I might take a shot at a found poem, and I decided to look in the most obvious place: what I'm reading now. One of my students is reading Anna Karenina, and since it's a book I had never gotten around to reading before, I figured I'd read it along with her. This is a passage from early in the book when Levin, a landowner from the country, has come to Moscow to ask a young woman he has known since her childhood if she will marry him. He's beset with doubts about whether he is worthy of her, and whether she will in fact accept him or laugh in his face.

I've been charmed, so far, by Tolstoy's tone: he renders his characters with what comes across as a kind of compassionate amusement. He sees them as somewhat awkward and ridiculous, but perhaps no more so than any of the rest of us. I'm reading Tom Perotta's Little Children at the same time (having heartily enjoyed his most recent effort, The Abstinence Teacher). Perotta has also been described as a "gentle satirist, and his characters are also awkward and ridiculous at times," but one comes away from his definitely funny but pointedly devastating characterizations with something closer to dismay than amusement. You get the sense that he's interested in his characters, but not so much that he loves them. But with Tolstoy, so far at least, you get the sense that he does love them, despite their foibles, and that he is encouraging you to love them too.

In an attempt to stay within the 100-word framework, I wound up deleting a few words from the original, but still came in a few words over. I'm not going to get too anal-retentive about it. Whatever.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Iced Out (100x7)

I don’t know if this is the time to bring this up, or when that time would be, but it’s been two years now with not one word from you. I’ve tried to do what you asked, to let you go and get on with my life. But I still don’t know what I did wrong, why it had to be this way, why you chose to ice me out in the first place and why you have kept it up this long. I guess this is how it has to be, but God help me, I still love you.

Process Reflection: One hundred one-syllable words for an archetypal human situation.

I was watching “Friday Night Lights” the other night and there’s a scene where one of the characters who has been hurting for some time over a breakup confronts his ex-girlfriend and says “Just look me in the eye and tell me you don’t feel the same way I feel about you and move on.” So she looks him in the eye and says. “I don’t felt the same way about you that you feel about me. You need to move on,” and then turns on her heel and leaves him standing there.

Then the other day I was talking with a friend who is still hurting after a breakup that he stills sees as inexplicable, and that got me thinking about the various times in my life, from grade seven on up, when I was in situations close enough to this one to be able to relate.

When I used to teach elementary school one of the things I once heard one of my mentors say was that if kids know they are going to write every day, they start to pay a different kind of attention to what is going on in their lives. And I know that’s true: now that I’m a week into this 100-word exercise, I’m starting to line up ideas ahead of time. I was thinking as I went to sleep last night about what I might wind up writing about today, and I had thought about maybe working with a one-syllable limitation.

When I woke up near midnight, I started pushing one syllable words down the road of my mind and found myself muttering “I don’t know if this is the time…” Not wanting to forget that beginning, I got out of bed, went to the kitchen, opened my notebook, and next thing you know I was channeling these words out of that tv drama and that real-life conversation.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Stop Making Sense (100x6)

If the hour is not at hand, be always low
in the saddle, expect a second or third small test,
a few words here, a few words over the stable
where you stood for all those hours with the brsh
in your hand, waiting for your mother to show up
and push that mare out of the way, grab you
by the hand and deliver you, one last sad time,
from the vise of youthful fear and sheer animal malice,
this before the tables turned and her long downward arc
left her in that darkened room behind the next door.

Process Reflection: The initial structural concept was straightforward enough: one sentence, ten lines, ten words per line. I also had it in mind to try something in the manner of John Ashbery, who has made a career out of writing allusive, elusive, poems which are verbally and syntactically rich but which resist paraphrase or literal interpretation. Here’s a representative passage, in this case from a poem called “Mottled Tuesday”:

Hey, you’re doing it, like I didn’t tell you
to, my sinking laundry boat, point of departure,
my white pomegranate, my swizzle stick.
We’re leaving again of our own volition
for bogus patterned plains streaked by canals,
maybe. Amorous ghosts will pursue us
for a time, but sometimes they get, you know, confused and
forget to stop when we do, as they continue to populate this
fertile land with their own bizarre self-imaginings.
Here’s hoping the referral goes tidily, O brother.

I’ve always been intrigued by Ashbery; his poems insist that you re-invent yourself as a reader, starting by putting aside your most central readerly assumption, that a piece of writing ought to have a paraphrasable content.

There’s an assignment I sometimes give my students which, for lack of a better title, I call “Stop Making Sense.” The assignment is to attempt to fill a page, or a certain number of lines, with nonsense. It sounds easy, and someone like Ashbery can make it perhaps look easy, but easy it isn’t. Our brains aren’t wired that way. What happens is most often what happened to me in this exercise: while your left brain plays its little structural game, the right brain tosses up whatever it is that it feels you have not been paying attention to. Something wants to surface, something comes to call.

In this case, the person coming to call is my mom. The scene which emerges from and ultimately triumphs over the non-scene, the non-sense, actually happened to me when I was about twelve years old. It’s a scene I had not consciously thought about in close to fifty years. We had bought a horse whom I had, in gesture whose irony I did not appreciate until some years later, Joy. (I’ve told that story before.) It was my job each morning and evening to feed and attend to Joy, but she was fractious and inventively mean-spirited beast and on the occasion in question, when I entered her stall one evening around dinnertime to bring her a bucket of bran mash, she let me in; but then, when I went to leave the stall, she kept pushing her enormous body against the wall of the stall in such a way as to pen me in. I spent a good half hour trapped in the stall, wondering how I would ever get out, when suddenly my mother, who stood all of 5’1” on a good day, appeared in the barn demanding to know what was going on. When I told her Joy wouldn’t let me out, she walked over, smacked her on the rump, pushed her aside (and she moved!), grabbed my hand, and led me out of the barn and into the house for my own dinner. I don’t who was more surprised by her temerity, me or Joy.

I would not claim much for the poem that has resulted from the exercise. It is in essence just a draft, a seed, a beginning of something. It's something that might become a poem, or a part of another, more ambitioius narrative, long overdue, about my mother. But it does now exist, and it exists only because of my own willingness to subject myself to the discipline of the exercise. Which is one of the many interrelated messages I am trying to send to my students. If you don’t know where to begin, that’s okay. Write something that doesn’t make sense. And good luck with that.

Friday, January 25, 2008

I Think Not (100x5)

I Think Not

Not so fast.
Not on your life.
Not another one.
Not a soul in sight.
Not if I can help it.
Not a cloud in the sky.
Not a very hard decision.
Not unless you make me.
Not before you apologize.
Not so hard to understand.
Not a chance in the world.
Not making much progress.
Not after what just happened.
Not bloody likely, then, is it?
Not much left to the imagination.
Not without good reason, I’m not.
Not for nothing have we come this far.
Not because you have to, but because you want to.

Process Reflection: What you see is pretty much what you get. Just fooling around with an idea here. A couple of funny moments as I was putting this together. I was interested in the emotional freight that some of the phrases seem to carry with them, and the variety of tonalities. Not going to win any prizes. Not to worry.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Axiomatic (100x4)


Tell me what you see. Tell me what you think
about what you see. What do you observe?
What can you infer from what you observe?
What is still open to question? Are you stuck?
That’s great! Now you’re in a position to learn
something! “I don’t understand.” That’s the sound
of a door closing. Open the door: Phrase your lack
of understanding as a question. If you can ask
the right question, you’re more than halfway
to an answer. One answer might be fill in the x
Another answer might be y, or z, or m squared.
Still stuck? Shift your point of view. How would
a psychologist answer the question? A lawyer?
Your mother? Your best friend? Triangulate.
Get the stereo view. Broad is the road to deep.

Process Reflection: Started out with the intention to go with 100 words, and had to bend the rules a little to make it work, wound up at 130. Anyway, there are certain moves I ask students to make over and over, certain questions I tend to keep asking, day after day, in class, and I thought it might be interesting to try to come up with a compact version of the drill I do every day. If my classroom is the iceberg, maybe this is the tip.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sixty-One (100x3)

Thirteen Ways of Thinking about 61

Babe Ruth’s single season home-run record.
Five degrees lower than Honolulu ever gets.
Three squares shy of a chessboard.
16 looking at itself in a mirror, much later.
Two digits which add up to a magic number.
The highway Bob Dylan revisited.
Nine cards more than a poker deck.
Seven octaves and some grace notes.
Number 18 in the sequence of prime numbers.
My quarter grade in Dan Barren’s geometry class.
My father’s age when the third heart attack took him down.
Three largish English classes; four smallish ones.
The birthday I celebrate today.

Process Reflection: This started out from the intersection of two events in my life: discovering the 100-Word assignment on the web two days ago, and turning 61 today. It’s a birthday I’ve been warily watching approach because, as the poem indicates, my father only made it barely this long, and I don’t really know how I feel about getting to be older than my father. My original idea was to have it be a ten-line poem entitle “Ten Ways…” but I was some words short and began playing around to fill in some words and wound up with thirteen lines, which seemed appropriate as a nod to Wallace Stevens, whose poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is one of my favorites and a core text in my sophomore English class. What sort of surprised me about the poem was how just the effort of trying to assemble this list wound up producing a sort of capsule autobiographical sketch. That wasn’t my original intention, but again, given the occasion, seems apropos. After I got all the lines and hit 100 words right on the nose, I spent another five or ten minutes arranging and rearranging the sequence of lines. Originally, the one about my dad was first. (Maybe it still should be. Dunno. The poem still feels wet to me.) But writing this turned out to be more fun than I thought it was going to be when I started it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

After School On Ordinary Days (100x2)

After School on Ordinary Days

Once I’m in the door, I put down my bookbag,
change into jeans and a t-shirt, and walk up to the kiosk
on the corner to buy a copy of the Honolulu Advertiser,
not so much for the news, but because every day,
five weeks late, they publish on the second page
of the Island Life section, the New York Times
Crossword Puzzle. I settle into my chair, skim the news,
then fold back the page, take out my Pilot Razor-Point,
and set to work, filling in the ones I know, figuring out
the ones I don’t, until the last letter falls into place,
and I’m ready to start what’s left of my day.

Process Reflection: I was talking with my sophomore students today, on the first day of class, about reading as a writer and writing as a reader. We began by with reading as writers by looking at a poem by Maria Gillan called “After School on Ordinary Days,” trying to read the poem with some attention to writerly choices. One set observations had to do with the way that the poet elaborates on the china closet and what’s in it, and how that move toward specificity conveys useful information to us as readers. Another had to do with the way that the poet resolves the poem by appending a kind of summary tag, a caption, commenting on the transformative power of memory. Which led us briefly into a discussion on the sources of poetic inspiration, of which we identified at least four: observation, memory, imagination, and emotion. We spent a little time unpacking Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion… recollected in tranquility.” The homework assignment, writing as readers, was to write a poem (or perhaps a short prose narrative) introducing ourselves to one another by sharing something along the lines of “After School on Ordinary Days," and borrowing whatever writerly moves from the original that seem useful. This one's mine, and, coming in at 113 words, counts as number two in the 100-Word-a-Day sweepstakes.

Monday, January 21, 2008

100 Words a Day

Barbara Ganley's post today references an student post with a simple idea for a frame: write 100 words a day. Over the holidays and during exam week I've been all over the place in my mind, but not writing much. Tomorrow we start the new semester, and I'm looking forward to re-establishing some rhythm in my writing life, and this sounds like a user-friendly goal. So I'm ready to play. So here are my hundred words for today. It was 98 when I pasted it in, but to get in the spirit, I just added two more. Extra points if you can tell which ones:


This then something. This then
a testament. This then a strand,
this a filament, this a pause. A net.
A waiting: the snowcrust crackling,
white clouded breath, all eyes and ears.

No song, this. No mere diversion.
No hours lost undredeemed. Thus far,
what you see, I see. I sense you there,
waiting as well. What you seek: light.
Breathe. Listen. This then. Something.

Now another. Never the last, each
only an instance. This, then this, then
This. Stand, listen, take another step.
The bow is drawn, the string is taut,
Now I see you. Now the arrow flies.

Process Reflection: Three nights ago I was having trouble sleeping and finally at around 2:00 a.m. I decided to get up and write a little in my journal to settle my head. I went to the kitchen and wrote for a while, then went back to bed and lay in the dark with words still stirring in my subconscious, which tossed up to me the first five words of this poem. I flicked the light on, and lay in bed with my notebook and began working into it. The first few lines came more or less came out of nowhere, out of the impulse simply to be writing. There were some lines in there that came out of connections only I could make, connections that a reader would not understand, so I gave the poem the working title "Code Poem." Then at the end first stanza I had this memory flash of being 12 years old on the farm, with the shotgun my father had recently given to me as a birthday present in my arms, trudging through the underbrush in the snow in the hopes of perhaps starting up a rabbit or a grouse. So at that point it dawned on me I had a poem going that was about writing, and about hunting, and about the way words present themselves: the rhythm of thought. By that time I felt like I had a good start and so I left it about half finished, turned off the light, and went to sleep.

Tonight after I woke up from a late afternoon nap and began thinking about what I wanted to do with this last evening before the new semester begins, I decided to see what I could do with the raw material. I re-shaped a few of the original lines, switched the title to "Orion" and the shotgun for a bow, decided on the stanza shape, and just pushed along toward the ending, which I had not planned, but which arose out of the several small decisions I had made along the way.

This is not the first time that a poem has come to me in that in-between space between waking and sleeping, when the conscious mind has relaxed its hold enough to allow words to arrive from another place.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

In My Language

Chris Sessums posted this video, which I am now planning to share very early on with my second semester sophomore English students, who will be arriving in my classroom for the first time next week. In the class, which has an explicit critical thinking emphasis, we generally spend a lot of time exploring modes of thought, learning how to ask good questions, and considering the importance and power of being able to shift your point of view. This video is a mini-workshop in all of these things. I'm eager to what the students make of it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Form and Matter

Here's a treat for the eyes and ears, courtesy of my son:

An Open Letter to My Sophomore Students – January 2008

Well, it’s finally here: the last day of English class for sophomore year. I’ve been asking you over the last week or so to do a number of exercises which I hoped would give you the chance to look back over the semester, and the year, to see what looks or feels like it might be worth remembering. I’m not sure what each of you will think, when you look back, say, a year from now, and think about what sophomore year was like for you. But there are at least a few ideas which I have tried to present to you that were of relatively great importance to me, and I thought I’d try to put them into words one more time. I’d like to talk about three closely related which have been thematic in this course. They are that being able to read well matters, that literature matters, and that the language that we use matters. Many of you have shown me, through the care and thoughtfulness you have shown throughout the year, that these things matter to you to as well. For those of you who remain perhaps unconvinced, let me try to say why they matter.

Reading well is, of course, a survival skill in high school in college. We live in an increasingly image-oriented culture, and much of the information that we have need of, or that we take pleasure in, can be found in easily digestible form on television, in the movies, or on the internet. Nevertheless, for something like three thousand years the written word has been the primary vehicle on this planet for the development of knowledge and culture and self-understanding. One way of thinking about what it means to be an educated person is to think of yourself as being a participant in the Great Conversation, which is nothing less than the history of everything that has been said and thought by human beings through the ages. If you want to do well in school, if you want to become an educated person, if you want to be able to participate in that Great Conversation, you need to be able to read and understand what is put in front of you. The materials we have looked at this year—The Merchant of Venice, The Poisonwood Bible, the poems and essays and stories we read together—may have seemed challenging to you in various ways, but, to be honest, on a scale of 1-10 in terms of difficulty, these are somewhere in the 4-5 range. As you continue your education, you will be asked to read—not just in English classes, but in history and science and economics and sociology classes—more challenging, more thought-provoking, more substantial material than anything we read together this year. It is my hope that you are leaving sophomore year with a better sense of the how of reading well: that you know what you already do relatively well, and what you need to work on doing better. Reading, like everything else, is a process, and it is a process that you can figure out and adapt and get better at. All it takes is patience, self-discipline, and the willingness to keep asking the same fundamental critical thinking questions we’ve been practicing all year: where am I now? where do I want to get to? How might I get there?

Why does literature matter? One important answer is suggested by the Christopher Clausen’s quotation I asked you to write into your commonplace books at the beginning of the semester, “All great literature addresses directly or indirectly two questions: What kind of world is this? How should we live in it?” I would argue that these are truly essential questions. I suppose there are some people who might argue that it makes no difference how we live, that we should just do whatever we want to do and not worry about the consequences. Those people probably do exist, but they are not the kind of people that I want to have around me, and I hope they are not the kind of people you want to have around you. If in fact there are some courses of action that are wiser than others, some kinds of behavior that are better than others, some ways of living that make more sense than others, I think it’s fairly important that we make some effort to try to figure out what those ways are. This is where literature comes in. We all live our lives constrained by time and circumstance. If you have to make all of your decisions based only on your own experience and the experience of the people immediately around you, you are drawing upon a very shallow pool of experience indeed. As the American philosopher George Santayana famously stated, those who are ignorant of the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them. Fortunately, the Great Conversation has been going on for centuries. You can broaden your sense of your options, you can broaden your experience, you can develop your sense of engagement and compassion, by reading history, by reading novels, by reading essays and stories and poems, all of which have been put together by people very much like you, people who have cared enough about living well to try to explore the possibilities and the implications through the act of writing. Barbara Kingsolver wrote The Poisonwood Bible because she cared about a number of things that she hoped to be able to make you care about as well. If you find yourself in agreement with her, that’s good. If you find yourself in disagreement with her, that’s even better. The moment you begin to talk back to her, in class, on paper, or even in your mind, you are entering into the Great Conversation, and you are in a position to learn something about the world, and about yourself.

Finally, the language that we use is also important, but the reasons are more subtle and perhaps harder to explain. It occurs to me as I write this that we haven’t talked specifically about this issue very much this semester, although it’s been very much part of the unarticulated subtext of the course. In abbreviated form, my argument is simply this: language is the vehicle of thought. If you are in the habit of using language carelessly and unreflectively, your thinking is going to lack clarity, precision, logic, or any of the other standards of quality which we have been trying to achieve this year. I’d like to be able to make the assumption that you all can see the value in being able to think clearly and communicate your thinking effectively. If you make that assumption, then I think it follows of necessity that you will see the value of paying attention to words—the words you use, and the words others use. Vaclav Havel, the playwright, essayist, and political activist who rose to be President of the Czech Republic, has an essay in which he makes the argument that “Responsibility for and toward words is a task which is intrinsically ethical.” If you care about the kind of person you are, you should care about the words you use, and how you use them. Your words, like your actions, help to define who you are. Learning to speak well and write well is not just something you do so you can get good grades in English. It’s something you do so that you can clarify your thinking, explore the world of thought, and become a more responsible person. If you truly understand this—and from what I have seen this year, many of you do—then you are always going to be able to find your way.

I would also like to say something about the semester projects. We have talked a lot about Quality this semester, what it is and how to attain it. My challenge to you was to come up with a project that represented Quality and linked to your essential questions. It was very gratifying to me to see the amount of time and effort that you put into the projects, and the level of performance that they represented. Some people like to make the argument that there is no way to define quality, that all judgment is subjective. With all due respect, I beg to differ. True quality takes many forms, but it is recognizable, and I did in fact recognize it in many of your projects. I hope that at some point in the future you will look back on your projects and remember sophomore English as a time in your life when you outperformed your own expectations. And I hope that you will have that experience many times more in the future.

There is of course a good deal more that I could say, much of which you have already heard from me before, perhaps more often than you might have wished. Let me close out, then, simply by wishing each of you well during the second semester and as you continue on to your junior and senior year. I’ve enjoyed working with you this year. If at any time I can be of help to you as you continue, feel free to come by and ask for help, or just to say hello.