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Notes from a Writing Center
By Alison Iglehart
A few years ago, my best friend Marilyn and I were tutors in a community college writing center in the South.
Marilyn was witty, irreverent, and easily bored, so we spent our down times working on ways to reduce complex and often inscrutable concepts to a handy, dispassionate code. “YKYITW” (You Know You’re In Trouble When…) referred to those students who entered the Center and stopped before a table on which lay piles of brochures from the Library, old newspapers, campus maps, etc. Some students rifled through the literature as if merely touching any printed matter might hopefully make them better writers.
Other evidence of YKYITW often appeared on the very title page of a student’s essay, e.g., “The Expierence of Illiteracy,” or, in the first paragraph, a student searching desperately through spell checker’s list of choices for a suitable word that looked (according to his yet limited vocabulary) like the one he wanted, came up with choices like the following: “At the funeral, the pastor delivered the urology for Clarence Jackson”; “When planning a trip, call a travel agent for directions. Brassieres will help.” In some such cases, we had no clue as to what the student intended. “What will help?”
Marilyn is half-Jewish, and much of our time she spent enlightening me about which Hollywood celebs are also half-Jewish: Goldie Hawn, Kathy Lee Gifford, Paul Newman, Michael Douglas, etc. She considered them an elite group. She got her minutiae from the National Enquirer, but often at night I watched the first few minutes of Biography just so I could one-up her on whose roots were what. I was her Boswell, and the McMahon to her Carson persona. She always got the good lines, but a foil is also necessary.
When the Y2K hoopla was on everyone’s lips a decade ago, Marilyn, who routinely and perversely mispronounced “big” words just for the hell of it, termed the Y2K phenomenon “the KY Factor,” alluding (I was expected to explain to those who looked puzzled) to the non-oily jelly used as a feminine lubricant. From that time on, we classified everyone as either “KY cognizant” or not. Which camp he or she fell into determined the course of the ensuing conversation: “insider” or “outsider.”
Kidding aside, Marilyn counted on Y2K to save herself from financial ruin by computer glitches erasing her long-overdue student loans at the stroke of midnight, 2000. That, together with playing the Florida Lottery weekly, constituted the extent of her long-range financial planning.
In the meantime, she declared certain subjects taboo to talk about around her. “MTCI” meant no conversations about money, teeth, cars, or insurance. She lost her purse once and broke the silence, calling a customer service rep at Sears to report a lost credit card. “I want to be sure my account isn’t compromised,” she told him. A pause while he checked his records. “Lady, you don’t have an account with us.”
Not to be put down, Marilyn rejoined with one of her favorite codes: “Oh, well…BF…I’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
One of Marilyn’s BF’s was her love life. One “affair” occurred over the span of several months between Marilyn and the mail delivery person at work. Every day, she would tremble and become mute at the sight of his leaning in the door with a stack of inter-office mail envelopes. Eventually, the affair ended without his ever knowing the extent of its passion--or even that it had existed.
Not that Marilyn had problems with men; they adored her. At six feet, with long legs, she had thick, wayward bedroom hair in varying shades of auburn or gold, depending on which student cosmetologist she most recently prevailed upon to “do her roots.” Marilyn was statuesque and shapely and shouting pheromones. Construction workers, mechanics, maintenance workers, administrators, students…everyone knew Marilyn, and most (except the mailman) were flattered when she bantered with them. While she called herself an “aging coquette” (AC), she said it only to elicit denial from others.
Instances of when I was left standing in Marilyn’s wake and holding the bag for her occurred on Friday mornings when the “Personals” ads appeared in the local newspaper. Marilyn instructed me to circle any that had potential for her or showed creativity (she sometimes had her students write Personal ads about themselves to practice “tone”), and I was often caught by visitors to the Writing Center with the papers spread out over my desk, feverishly circling the “Wanted – Males” ads. “Any luck?” Marilyn would ask me pointedly.
Marilyn and I also spent our down time devising codes for some types of students who visited the Writing Center...in a respectful way, of course. “NYC,” we decided, stood for any student who transferred South from New York City or its environs (meaning anywhere in the North). Streetwise and savvy, usually with a good “voice,” NYC’s rarely bothered about fragments and comma splices, but their papers were fun to read.
“PT,” on the other hand, referred to those whose creative ideas were so deeply embedded in their psyches that “pulling teeth” was the only method of extracting them.
A favorite code, “RTB,” applied to those students who, despite the cultural, socioeconomic, 2nd language, or any other constraints they carried with them, still wrote so well that they became “reasons to believe” that talent yet existed in the world.
We marveled at and celebrated that talent when it appeared, and Marilyn, who also taught English and adored her students, took special interest in those who showed signs of becoming good writers. A gifted writer herself of sensual, provocative love poems, Marilyn sometimes read her poems to her classes and emphasized the value of contrasts in writing: “The Voice and the Vision”; “The Right Brain and the Left Brain” (although she often confused which was which—BF, she claimed); “Abstract and Specific.”
Her personal style was to jam-pack as many descriptive words—every part of speech and every detail—as possible into a work, and by the end of the term, most of her students were writing pretty fair imitations of her style. But writers are unpredictable, and you never know how a work has affected students until you read their papers.
Once she had her students write a response to her poem Arsonist about flickering candles and flame and heat and desire and unrequited love. One student put this paper together:
My personal response to this poem is that I thought Arsonist was a great poem. I think it a shame that they couldn’t fell the same way about each other. Their someone out their for everybody in life. How ever not everybody find that to love and be love. Hopefully that not the case and everybody can find a person to has emotional felling and love for them.”
“Whoa!” wrote Marilyn on his paper. “Call the language police! This shows heart, and I think you’re onto something about ‘something for everyone,’ but your ideas are distorted by syntax problems and missing words and generalities. Try again.”
“What’s up?” I asked her. “You look depressed.”
“PT,” she answered. “YKYITW…and from our FWIWD, SOS…”
I nodded in agreement.
* * * * *
In memory of Dr. Bob and Sylvia Diamond Culp, Marilyn’s parents, who passed away recently.
from the June 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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