Thursday, August 18, 2011



TW took the kids to visit her parents for the last few days, so The Dog and I have been on our own. Faced with an unaccustomed bit of alone time, I’ve been attacking the basement. This has involved unearthing all manner of stuff from decades past.

Helpful Psychological Tip: If you want to maintain your self-esteem, never reread any of your papers or letters from high school or college. Seriously.

Old photos are bad enough. They bring back memories of long-lost hair, and of unfortunate fashion choices. But old papers and letters remind you of how you thought.


“Callow” would be a good description. “Painfully naive.” “Completely clueless.” “Trying so, so, so very hard.”

In reading them, I’m reminded of watching a child put on his father’s suit. Except that the child knows it’s play. I didn’t.

These were the days before email, let alone Twitter. Back then, “long distance” phone calls were hideously expensive and postage was cheap, so penniless students wrote letters. And by “wrote,” I mean “handwrote.” I haven’t used cursive for anything longer than my signature since I don’t know when, but there it is, in all its glory.

One particularly painful exchange from my senior year of high school, with a young woman who had just gone off to college, featured an exchange of...I am not making this up...poems. Apparently I had written and sent some to her -- really? I did that? -- for feedback, and she politely declined to critique them, noting that it would be “like Virginia Woolf critiquing Richard Brautigan.” (We tried soooo hard...) I’m sure I didn’t get it at all. Reading her letter now, it reeks of “what-ever...,” but I didn’t get that at the time.

You forget what the world looked like at 17...

I even found a picture of me with my college girlfriend, who later came out as a lesbian. (My preferred interpretation: you’ve had the best, why try the rest?) My mullet was mighty and untamed.


The most painful part is knowing that even if fortysomething me could time-travel back and give twenty-year-old me a clue, it wouldn’t have helped. I wouldn’t have understood it. Some things just have to be learned firsthand.

Every so often now I’ll see young students doing things that remind me of the callow, clueless kid I was. Part of me wants to pull them aside and give them a clue, but I know it wouldn’t work. To them, I’m just some old guy. They have to figure it out for themselves, as painful as that is.

If nothing else, the excavation exercise is usefully humbling. Some of those kids wandering around with deer-in-the-headlight expressions will eventually be fine; they just need some time to grow into themselves. And those of us on the other side can’t try to rush them. The generation coming up may never have this experience, since they never used paper this way. At least my juvenalia isn’t floating around on the web somewhere.

Meanwhile, the shredder is getting a hell of a workout.

I think the younger generation will do the same, the media just changes. When it's time to give up the "cutiebabepie" email address for something a little more resume appropriate, they'll look back through those emails. Or cleaning out that random USB they found in a bag.
I've looked at some old papers, and it can be instructive (or, in the case of creative writing, entertaining). There is nothing like some old exams to help ensure that your standards today are comparable to those applied in the past. I could also imagine handing out an old juvenile essay for a writing class to critique. I would see that as a teachable moment that can cross age gaps.

Further, I think one advantage at a CC is that we have older students around. Some aren't a lot older, but they have matured a lot in Iraq or Afghanistan or after supporting a family for 5 or 10 years. We shouldn't hesitate to encourage students to help lead other students.

And whatever you do, don't give up! Didn't you learn from advice that was given to you but ignored at the time? Learning is not instantaneous, regardless of what the outcomes assessment mavens wish was the case.

Memo to TW and Brother of DD:

Fb is the repository of choice for old photographs, like those DD found without realizing he is still a young whippersnapper.
Oh, not to worry. I have a few "Teenage DD avec mullet" photos in my safekeeping. Which I would use later as blackmail, except that photos from my own awkward period (known to most folks as "the Eighties") are plentiful and far worse. Let's just say I made far unwiser hair choices than "mullet" and had the fashion sense of a drunken Trekkie and move along, shall we?

Helping Mom clear out a storage unit five years ago, I found a box of crap from my college days, including a few papers. I cringed for days. So very, very bad. If I ever have the misfortune of coming across a copy of my undergrad thesis, the popular internet phrase "KILL IT WITH FIRE" will be applied. Even thinking about it now makes me twitchy.

Letters to the ladies that appear to have been written in my hand in those days were all forgeries. Every last one. Forgeries crafted by my enemies to thwart my wooing at the time and make me look borderline brain-damaged in later years. An elaborate ruse designed to make me look like a buffoon. My enemies were clever, vicious bastards.
You have to trust me on this, Brother of DD, but photos like those will be mutually appreciated as wall or profile pictures on the occasion of the next birthday milestone.

Using his "youthful" photo while posting a birthday greeting is lots of fun when enough years have passed by for you and many of your similarly aged friends. Also a good reason to keep any professional Fb page a long way away from your actual friends.
"They have to figure it out for themselves, as painful as that is."

But it's also exciting, breathtaking, amazing, filled with wonderful people and things. I'm 63, and I can look back at the 17-30 me and see someone who's "callow" and "trying ...very hard" (I have re-read some of the editorial columns I wrote for my college newspaper) (and some of the letters I got from a young woman (then) with whom I'm still in touch). And I can see how difficult and awkward it was, but I can still feel the thrill of discovering new ideas and of connecting with people in wholly new ways and forming friendshipd still alive and vital affter 45 years.
Chuckle. I did this when I was 26 or so and had to move across the country, so it wasn't as painful as it could have been. My worst archival material was found in a heavily religious phase...

Hope you enjoyed the time alone! Sounds nice for a couple of days.
I enjoyed everything about this post except the resort to the shredder at the conclusion. I hope you don't regret that impulse in a decade or so.

I've kept all the personal correspondence I received through my 20s, neatly filed. I think of it as the good, the bad and the ugly.

Thanks for another great one.
I unearthed my senior honors thesis towards the end of grad school and cringed at the terrible writing. I found it again (don't ask) after about ten years of teaching undergraduates and you know, it was actually pretty good.
So happy to be home after a 4-day stay in The House with No Air-Conditioning, Low Water Pressure and A Really, Really Slow Computer. In other words, my parent's home. Your post reminded me to check the basement and it looks fantastic! Thank you! We can't wait to see you - hurry home!!!
Thanks, DD.

A constant complaint from teachers, and one that's been constant throuhout history is "Students today can't even [fill in your pet gripe here]." It's what teachers said about US when WE were students. And it's what THEIR teachers said about them when they were students, too.

We'd all be a bit more sane (and maybe a bit more humane, too) if we remembered this the next time a student pushes one of our buttons.

I've fretted about my students' writing ability, and lack of general knowlege that you would expect of a high school graduate. But until I read their writing, or find out they don't know, oh, basic US history, I find most of them very engaging, and with intellectual curiosity, just not toward academic subjects. As an older guy, I find it difficult to separate my assessment of their written documents from my assessment of their learning. But as I've gotten more teaching experience I see that as just a sign of the times, where to be concerned with standard English labels one as a grammar geek, and, unless they're going to graduate school, largely unnecessary. Well, to a point. I just try to get them to an acceptable point.
It's funny; the big thing I feel when looking at pictures and reading my old writing is sadness that I wasn't able to throw off the craziness my parents tried to implant into me sooner.

Seriously, Catholic upbringings are just not compatible with kids who want to be their own persons and understand the world. Don't even try. You're just doing damage.
In particular, I found some pics of myself and wondered, "Why did I ever think I was an ugly kid?" And some writing to girlfriends and thought, "Man, if only some sex-positive person had been able to help me untangle the difference between the messages I was getting at home from my lived reality."
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