Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Changing the World (a comma at a time)
You know what comes after grad school? Grad school loans.
You know what doesn't pay off grad school loans? Writing.
This is true. I didn't graduate with my finished novel, like I'd planned, and while I am so, so happy with the choice I made to work on short stories, it means my loans are going to come due before my book is ready to go out into the world. And now, it's time to put that MFA to work somewhere.
I've been looking at tutoring jobs online. It's a flexible job that allows me to be home for my kids, to choose hours around my own schedule, that allows me the time to still write (unlike teaching, which has all those planning and grading hours not factored in). It doesn't pay great, but it works perfectly for what I need right now.
So this weekend I set out to apply to a few places, and one of them had subject tests as the first part of the application process. I get it. They want to make sure I can actually teach the subject - especially on the fly when a kid, who is paying by the hour, logs in and needs an answer right away.
Then I started thinking about that. Kids, in middle and high school, possibly college, logging in and asking me about stuff I don't know. It's been a decade and a half since I taught middle school, and even then I was sometimes only a step ahead of the kids in the curriculum. If they ask about literature, what if I haven't read the book? No one can possibly read all the books that all the schools in the country are teaching. What if there's some part of speech I've never heard of? What if they need help writing an essay and I don't really know how to write an essay? What if I've been just winging it all these years on a little bit of talent and a lot of gracious teachers?
I had myself so worried I couldn't pass that I avoided that website for a few days before finally taking a deep breath and sitting down to do it.
You can only fail once. I figured if I failed, at least I'd know what the test was like, I could study and retake it.
I chose to start with the middle and high school English. The website said the time limit on the test was one hour. The put a ticking clock in the corner of the screen. You could miss two questions. Go.
I took a breath, looked at the test.... and realized I knew it all. It was grammar, punctuation, diagramming, literary devices... all the things I love. I mean, as I went through the test, I was madly in love with it all. I felt warm fuzzies when it asked me to tell where parts of a sentence would fall on a sentence diagram. When it asked me to finish the analogies, I almost hugged the computer. The questions where you had to identify which sentence was punctuated correctly (and there were semi-colons!!) I nearly did a jig. I love this stuff.
I finished the entire test in about ten minutes. I went back over it to make sure I hadn't been tricked, and submitted it.
I decided to take the essay writing test.
I decided to take the college level writing tutor test. It was billed as a two hour test. Thanks to my recent experience with essay writing and MLA bibliographies and works citing... 20 minutes later - CHA-CHING. Another 100%.
And I realized how much I really love this stuff. This grammar and punctuation and writing organization. Not just because I understand it, but because I really, truly think this stuff is important. I really do think knowing how to write clearly and cleanly makes a difference. That a person that can use words and language well - not just to tell stories but to do anything - has the power to change the world.
Think about the great speeches in history that have swayed public opinion, caused people to rise up and revolt or rise up and come together. Think about the legal contracts and laws that govern your lives. Think about advertising and news, well-written ads and articles that have changed your mind or convinced you of something or opened your eyes to something you didn't know. Think about the poets and journalists and memoirists who have changed the way we see the world - have often changed the course of the world - because of the way they have written.
It was, for the first time in a long time, a realization that I do think what I do is important. That I'm passionate about it because it matters. It doesn't matter to the world in financial terms. Heaven knows even the tutoring websites are clamoring for (and pay more for) physics and calculus and accounting teachers, not English. But it matters equally as much in the scheme of humanity and politics and faith. Maybe more.
This is silly, I know. This whole post. This realization. Most of you probably already feel this way. But I live in a world - the outside DC, triple-income-family world - where people make a lot of money. They buy expensive houses and eat at expensive restaurants and take extravagant vacations. What I do will barely pay the student loans and put away money for my kids' colleges. Doing things like part-time tutoring and struggling with a novel are not real jobs.
I live in a place where there is a lot of pressure to be successful in a way that loving language will never make me. I've felt "less than" for this for a long time. I've felt weird for being passionate about things like proper punctuation and good grammar. It's something people can laugh at, post memes about on facebook for you, but really is seen as mostly quirky.
But it's not, I've decided. It's more than a quirk. It's the way the world is changed, for the better or the worse. And isn't that something worth being passionate about?