Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Essay & Robert Fulghum

Ahh, the essay and the art of writing.

For those of us in the field, we understand the complicated nature of the word essay. It can be such a beautiful art form, yet it is the bane of existence for many a student. It's not their fault - the students or the essays - but the nature of standardizing and institutionalizing practically anything. I've been thinking recently about the negative connotation of that thing I love because I've had to concede to my students in AP English Language the contrived nature of the composition class I teach and the formulaic manner in which I too often ask them to write.

But that's not the point of this post. The art of writing actually is.

Writer Rebecca Renner tweeted this morning a simple request: "If you had to pick one book that has shaped your writing the most, what would it be (This essay is worth 50% of your grade)." It is a great question, especially with the tongue-in-cheek jab at the teaching of rhetoric and composition. And the thread is intriguing for all the diverse influences. Some obvious writing texts like Lamotte's Bird by Bird are contrasted by some epic pieces of fiction such as Catch-22. Obviously those types of books "influence" in distinct and different ways. My response was two-fold, as you can probably expect I'd respond. The op-ed is definitely my genre of choice and specialty, a situation I did not fully realize or pursue until my peer group during the Colorado Writing Project pointed it out to me. To that point, the primary text that has influenced me is actually the columns of three writers: Mike Royko of the Chicago Sun Times & Tribune; George Will of the Washington Post; and David Brooks of the New York Times.

However, if I had to choose one book that influenced, it is a quirky little collection of essays that took the publishing and reading world by storm in 1988. It's All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum.  The book, which he subtitled "Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things," captivated and engaged and entertained me in every way. But more importantly, it taught me to look at "the essay" in an entirely different and positive way. I came to appreciate the art of storytelling as a way of engaging an audience with topics and issues, and I experienced the beauty of narrative in non-fiction. For many years now, I've used Fulghum's book, and his others like it, in my class to great benefit. They are bell starters and writing prompts and digressions and more. I know his book influenced me most because I'm on my second copy, and it too is falling apart from usage. Additionally, I know a piece of writing is special when I wish I had written it. And, I have long thought I want to be Robert Fulghum when I grow up.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Alton, IL: a giant, little river town

I recently began referring to myself more regularly as an "Altonian" after I took a class about race, ethnicity, education, and identity. The inclination was heightened a bit after I spent a bit more time in Littleton and Arvada and Golden, a few foothills towns outside of Denver, where I realized I just felt more at home, or at least nostalgic. Those little communities just seem familiar in a comforting way. And part of those feelings led to a simple bit of travel writing I was trying out. While I couldn't get any publications interested in the feature, I did recently publish the full piece on

Located at the foot of massive limestone bluffs running alongside the ole Miss’, Alton has been home and host to giants of all sorts. Robert Wadlow, at 8 feet 11.5 inches the tallest man to ever live, was known far and wide as “Alton’s Gentle Giant,” and the River City is also the birthplace of jazz legend Miles Davis. Visitors to Alton can appreciate statues of both these icons, with the Miles Davis statue located in the downtown area on Third Street and the colossal life-size Wadlow statue in North Alton on the campus of Southern Illinois University’s School of Dentistry. The loftiest of monuments to the giants of Alton, however, is reserved for Elijah P. Lovejoy, an abolitionist writer who is considered by many to be the first casualty of the Civil War. And that historical connection of Alton is just one of myriad reasons to visit — it’s a small town with big stories.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

I Went to the Wrong College ...

"I went to the wrong college."

It was never even a doubt that I was going to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign because I'd been going to football games with my dad there for years, and my mom went there, and for a high achieving student at a small little Catholic school in southern Illinois, the U of I was pretty much the obvious choice. Just me and about 36,000 students (though it has now just passed 50K).

In reality I should have gone to a small liberal arts school where I wouldn't have become lost amidst all the distractions. I should have gone to Wash-U in St. Louis or perhaps Northwestern or definitely Miami of Ohio, though I'm probably overestimating my brain and credentials. For, even going to a school like DePauw in Indiana, where I had a potential opportunity to keep playing soccer, would have been a really good fit for me. A small school with smaller classes and, perhaps, a better opportunity at a more cohesive sense of community might have kept me more focused on the reason we go to universities - educating ourselves. After being a straight A student my entire life, I graduated from my program in secondary education with a none-too-impressive 2.9 GPA. Yep, I went to the wrong college.

In a place like the U of I, it was too easy to get lost and pursue anything but an education. For example, at Illinois my mandatory government class, Poli-Sci 150, was held in Folinger Auditorium -- just me, the professor, and 1500 classmates. I attended that class approximately five times. Clearly attendance wasn't mandatory, the professor wrote the book and study guide, from which he directly lectured, and my discussion section with the grad student TA at the end of the week was less-than-engaging (though I'd put that on me as much as he). So, I bought the study guide, took the mid-term and final, turned in a paper that I had written for my government class during my sophomore year of high school ... and got a B. That experience -- and showing up late to a final in educational psychology because I was driving back from a Grateful Dead show the night before in Milwaukee -- reflects most of my undergraduate experience.

Yet, I should neither complain nor lament my experience in college. I went to the wrong college, though it turned out to be the right one because that is where I met my wife. Julie and I have been married twenty-two years, have two wonderful children who absolutely amaze and impress and inspire me, and we live just outside of Denver, where I work at and my children attend one of the top high schools in the country. They are the loves of my life, and my career is so satisfying that I often marvel as I walk to school about how exactly I got here. Julie and I met in Speech Com 141, where I thought she was a flighty sorority girl, and she thought I was a disengaged loner, neither was remotely close to true, as she wasn't even in the Greek system and is the furthest thing from flighty, and I happened to be in one of the largest fraternities on campus. Funny how that goes.

I think a lot about college and career choices and how we end up where and who we are as adults, and I try to share some insight with the many students I encounter and the many parents who ask about these things. In terms of colleges, there is not just one, but dozens if not hundreds of options for students. And, in all honesty there is no perfect fit. Nor is the place we choose to study for four years the primary determining factor in the rest of our lives, a reality that was adroitly explained by columnist Nicholas Kristoff in his book Where You Go is not Who You'll Be: an Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. I'm sure I would have had a much richer educational experience at a small college, but it's not all about the classes and the grades. I met so many interesting people at the U of I, all of whom were influential in who I've become. And, granted, much of who I've become was set by who I already was at the age of two or three. Perhaps those qualities are what enabled me to connect with my wife who became the most important influence in my education and personal growth into the adult, husband, father, neighbor, and friend I am. I still recall a roommate telling me after Julie and I had been dating a while -- "She's good for you, Michael. She softens your edges." Oh, how true.

From that initial class together to a few more, a beautiful friendship developed over the next couple years, though neither of us was remotely aware that we would end up married. Interesting to note, many of our friends seemed to know long before we did. That's apparently not an unusual story. So, as it goes, we started dating a few weeks before graduation, moved abroad together to teach English and see the world for five years after graduation, and have been living happily together for nearly three decades.

So, I went to the wrong college. And, at risk of offending the literary types who will groan and roll their eyes as I appropriate and over-interpret the words of Robert Frost, I went to the wrong college "... that has made all the difference."