Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Need for a Revolution in Writing Instruction

from The New York Times Editorial Observer

The Fine Art of Getting It Down on Paper, Fast
By Brent Staples
Published: May 15, 2005

Imagine yourself a senior partner in a large accounting firm that has just hired a promising analyst from a top-tier college. You negotiate a generous salary and spend a fortune moving the new employee to an office in a distant city - only to find that he can't write a lick. He crunches numbers well enough and clearly knows the principles of accounting. But like many otherwise bright, well-educated people, he was never trained to express his thoughts in words. The blood drains from your face as you read that first audit report, which is so poorly structured as to be unintelligible.

These kinds of disappointments have a long history in the corporate world. Companies once covered for poor writers by surrounding them with people who could translate their thoughts onto paper. But this strategy has proved less practical in the bottom-line-driven information age, which requires more high-quality writing from more categories of employees than ever before. Instead of covering for nonwriters, companies are increasingly looking for ways to screen them out at the door.

This was clearly the subtext message of a report released last year by the National Commission on Writing, a panel of educators convened by the College Board. At the heart of the report - titled "Writing: A Ticket to Work ... or a Ticket Out" - is an eye-opening assessment of corporate attitudes about writing, surveying members of the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executives from the nation's leading corporations.

The findings, though given a positive gloss, were not encouraging. About a third of the companies reported that only one-third or fewer of their employees knew how to write clearly and concisely. The companies expressed a fair degree of dissatisfaction with the writing produced by recent college graduates - even though many were blue-chip companies that get the pick of the litter.

The poor writing found among both new and established employees has turned business leaders into champions of education reform and of the No Child Left Behind Education Act, which aims to strengthen public schools and erase the achievement gap between rich and poor children. But persuading schools to improve math and reading instruction, even in exchange for federal dollars, has proved difficult. Persuading schools to rethink the teaching of writing - those that teach it at all - is going to be a lot harder.

The depth of the resistance to common-sense writing reforms became clear in April, when the National Council of Teachers of English attacked the College Board for adding a writing segment to the SAT, the college entrance exam required by an overwhelming majority of America's four-year colleges and universities. The test, which consists of a brief, timed essay and a multiple-choice section, has already put schools and parents on notice that writing instruction needs to improve.

The English teachers, however, have other ideas. The group questioned the validity of the tests and trotted out the condescending notion that requiring poor and minority students to write in standard English is unfair because of their cultural backgrounds and vernacular languages. This is sadly reminiscent of the "Ebonics" proposal of the 1990's, in which misguided educators supported the appalling notion that street slang was as good or better than the standard tongue and should be given credence in student work produced for school.

The council also tried to discredit the idea of timed writing tests. The report seemed to suggest that the only way to judge writing was to consider student work that had been rewritten and edited over longer periods of time. Long-term projects are important, but they do not cover all of the kinds of writing that students will be called upon to produce either in college or in their lives. On the contrary, substantive writing on demand for reports, correspondence and even e-mail is now a common feature of corporate life.

The teachers also seemed to feel that only other English teachers were qualified to judge what good writing is. The evidence suggests, however, that most teachers have never taken a course in how to teach effective writing and that many don't know how to produce it themselves.

The blame lies not with the teachers, however, but with an American educational system that fails at every level to produce the fluent writers required by the new economy. To change that, the state colleges of education that produce most teachers will need to improve writing instruction courses and require all students to take them. The time devoted to writing instruction in kindergarten through 12th grade needs to be more skillfully used and doubled, at the very least.

The English teachers are right when they note that we live in a test-obsessed culture that puts far too much weight on the SAT. The test is supposed to be used as one element among many in deciding who enters college. But the test developers have performed an important service by bringing writing to the top of the national agenda.

What we need now is a revolution in writing instruction, not just another test prep exercise.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Happy 63rd Birthday to Tucker Clark -- and a weekend with Jack Kerouac

Tucker Clark was born in St. Louis, Mo., on June 25, 1945.

Today he is 63. By any measure, Tucker (my oldest brother) has been and continues to be an enduring touchstone of 60s culture.

For just a literary taste, we will take GTOTD readers back in time, to the University of North Carolina in 1963.

Tucker arrived as a freshman, having spent the summer building roads in Gambia with a program called Crossroads Africa.

He took part in a protest to integrate the lunch counters in downtown Chapel Hill. Since Main Street in Chapel Hill was also a federal highway, Tucker recalls, “on TV there were shots of the Feds hauling us away on charges of obstruction of a federal highway."

When he was a junior, he lived in a house off campus. His mother, Charlotte, recalls visiting him there. “It was the first time I saw MAKE LOVE NOT WAR. It was on a car in front of the house."

At one point, one of Tucker’s friends was on the road when he was picked up hitchhiking by … well, let’s let Tucker tell it:

My buddy, Marshall Hay – who is still at the Meher Baba Ashram in Myrtle Beach, S.C. – was hitch-hiking back to Chapel Hill after his first one-month stay down there, giving up the psychedelic life for Baba, when the first car that picked him up was a bunch of Lowell, Massachusetts, Indians and a drunk and bloated ---dah-dum Jack Kerouac!!!

He was coming from his mommy’s house in South Carolina. Marshall convinced the crew to come get drunk in Chapel Hill and sequestered them in the Tempo Room and went and got me, Russell Banks, and all the other UNC literati, who proceeded to Russell's house, where Kerouac berated hippies, the screwed-up California scene and how sick of everything he was.

He consumed lots of cheap-by-choice wine and told Russ and other erstwhile writers that they all sucked. Later on in New York Russell Banks wanted us to reconstruct each of our vantage points of that weekend for a Vanity Fair article-- never happened. It was so seminal -- and a part of Chapel Hill lore.

From Chapel Hill, Tucker went on to the Peace Corps in Nepal, a commune in Maine, an ahead-of-its time drug-education firm in Cambridge, Mass., a couple of decades as an alcoholic treatment counselor in Harlem, and now as a man-about-town in Westport, Conn.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Use an adjective after such verbs as be, become, seem, taste, smell, appear, sound, and look

From Ways of Thinking and Writing (1936) by Frank W. Cushwa and Robert N. Cunningham:

Use an adjective after such verbs as be, become, seem, taste, smell, appear, sound, and look unless you wish to qualify the verb. The adjective after the verb describes the subject.

  • He appears sick. [Sick describes the subject.]
  • The rose smells sweet [not sweetly since a rose is incapable of the act of smelling].
  • Though the entire team protested vehemently, the referee stood firm. [Stood firmly would describe the referee's posture; stood firm indicates that he was firm in his determination to enforce his decision.]

Monday, June 23, 2008

deadman's hand


deadman's hand noun: In a game of poker, a hand containing two aces and two eights.

After Wild Bill Hickok (right), nickname of James Butler Hickok (1837-1876). Hickock was a legendary figure in the American Wild West who worked variously as an army scout, lawman, and professional gambler. He was shot dead while playing poker, holding a hand that had two aces and two eights.

"Other [coffins] have been customized for fishermen, golfers, truck drivers (complete with an air horn from an 18-wheeler), and gamblers' coffins, which featured the traditional deadman's hand of aces 'n' eights."
-- C. Richard Cotton; Artist Finds Creative Niche by Painting Caskets; Associated Press; Feb 14, 1997.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Rubenesque -- a curvaceous eponym


Rubenesque (roo-buh-NESK) adjective
Full-figured; rounded; voluptuous
[After Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) known for depiction of plump female figures in his paintings.]

Rubens's paintings.

"But our society admires thinness -- the Rubenesque Marilyn Monroe likely would be considered too plump these days -- and so some of our children, in the quest to look attractive, may starve themselves."
-- S. Jennifer Hunter; Where Were Schiavo's Loved Ones As Disorder Led to Downfall?; Chicago Sun-Times; Apr 6, 2005.

(Perhaps someone who frequents delis too frequently would be "reubenesque.")

Thursday, June 19, 2008

"is when" or "is where" clauses

From The Century Handbook of Writing (1918) by Garland Greever and Easley S. Jones:

6. Do not use a when or where clause as a predicate noun. Do not define a word by saying it is a "when" or a "where." Define a noun by another noun, a verb by another verb, etc.

Wrong: The great event is when the train arrives.
Right: The great event is the arrival of the train.

Wrong: Immigration is where foreigners come into a country.
Right: Immigration is the entering of foreigners into a country.

Wrong: A simile is when one object is compared with another.
Right: A simile is a figure of speech in which one object is compared with another.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Sardonic from Sardinia? Who knew?


sardonic (sahr-DON-ik) adjective
Marked by scorn, mockery, and cynicism.
[After Sardinia, a large island in the Mediterranean. Eating a Sardinian plant was believed to produce facial convulsions as if in a maniacal laughter.]

Today's word in Visual Thesaurus.

"In no time the plot becomes less and less tangible as Merde Happens evolves into one long, sardonic diatribe by a Brit about the (exaggerated) strangeness of America -- when his French girlfriend isn't snarking about it."
-- Alan Wong; Sardonic Mirth; The Star (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia);
May 9, 2008.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

How Many Brigades in a Division?

No matter how many war movies we've watched, unless we actually served in the U.S. Army, we probably don't know the difference between Field Armies, Corps, Divisions, Brigades, Battalions, Companies, Platoons and Squads, nor the corresponding officers --- Generals, Lieutenant Generals, Major Generals, Colonels, Lt. Colonels, Captains, Lieutenants and Staff Sergeants -- who command each respective body.

Click here for a nice organizational chart laying it all out.

An Elegy for Copy Editors

From The New York Times
June 16, 2008

Editorial Observer: In a Changing World of News, an Elegy for Copy Editors

Copy editors are more powerful than proofreaders. They untangle twisted prose. They are surgeons, removing growths of error and irrelevance.

Monday, June 16, 2008

potter's field -- a burial place from the New Testament


potter's field noun
A burial place for poor or unidentified people.
[The term derives from the name of the area where Judas was buried after he hanged himself. The land was bought with pieces of silver he had received for betraying Christ.]

"The potter's fields are full. There are so many dead that there is nowhere left to put them [people who died crossing the desert from Mexico into the US]."
-- Luis Alberto Urrea; America's Bounty For Mexico; The Arizona Republic (Phoenix); Jun 12, 2005.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Red Smith and Shirley Povich

Looking toward Father's Day weekend, here is a great tribute to two beloved dads:

As Terence Smith well describes below, his father, Red Smith, and Shirley Povich were giants among sports columnists and among wordsmiths of any stripe.

That copies of To Absent Friends by Red Smith, The Red Smith Reader and All Those Mornings ... At The Post" are available on amazon for pennies apiece (click on the titles if you don't believe me) represents one of the best bargains imaginable for anyone wishing to learn the craft of bringing a subject to life and breadth in 500 words.

Two Parallel Lives: Shirley and Red
Published in the The New York Times: April 17, 2005

In reading a posthumous collection of the crisp, elegant columns of Shirley Povich, I was struck by how similar he was - in his personality, his work and his life - to my father, Red Smith, the former sports columnist for The New York Times.

My father and Povich, who wrote a sports column for The Washington Post for almost 75 years, from 1924 (the year the Senators won their only World Series) until 1998, were close friends and frequent traveling companions.

Along with their pal Frank Graham, a fellow sports columnist, they were a trifecta that followed the sports calendar from spring training in Florida to the World Series in the fall.

They were competitors, of course, but mostly they were friends. Once the day's columns were filed, they preferred one another's company and that of their wives. Their families became warm friends and have remained so to this day.

Povich died on June 4, 1998, at age 92. His children, David, Maury and Lynn, along with the former Post sports editor George Solomon, sorted through some 17,000 columns to choose 120 for "All Those Mornings ... At The Post," which was published this month by PublicAffairs to mark the centennial of Povich's birth. The columns are rich, rewarding, often funny, sometimes acerbic comments on the sporting scene.

Povich and my father were gentlemen of the old school, courteous to a fault, polite and modest. Both were gregarious souls who loved to tell stories, aloud and in print. Povich used to laugh so hard at his own stories he could hardly finish them. But their smiles disappeared when they confronted the self-important, especially the privileged sort who tend to own sports teams.

When provoked, they could skewer the pompous on the point of their pens so skillfully that only the blood would show.

They were born in the same year, both small-town boys, Povich from Bar Harbor, Me., my father from Green Bay, Wis. Both went into newspapering at an early age and both became sportswriters by accident. Povich was assigned to the sports department when he showed up at the Post in search of a job. He could have wound up in circulation, or advertising.

My father told a story, which may even be true, of how he ended up in sports by happenstance. When he was a copy editor for The St. Louis Star (it's gone now; my father always claimed to have killed every paper he worked for but The New York Times), there was apparently a scandal after it was discovered that three reporters in the sports department were on the take. The three were fired and the editor called my father over. As my father told it, the following conversation ensued.

Editor: Smith, what do you know about sports?
Smith: Just what the average fan knows, sir.
Editor: Are you honest, Smith?
Smith: I hope so, sir.
Editor: What would you do if a fight promoter offered you $10 to write about his fighter?
Smith: (long pause) Ten dollars is a lot of money, sir.
Editor: That's an honest answer, Smith. Report to the sports department.

The similarities continued as both my father and Povich wrote an amazing seven columns a week, then six, then five, then fewer. (I remember my father was always writing.)

Both loved baseball first and foremost, and boxing and horse racing and college football and golf and tennis. Both largely ignored basketball and hockey. ("Back-and-forth sports," my father called them.) Their shared preference was for games that had a narrative plot line and colorful characters, sports that wrote themselves.

Both were short in stature, and neither was much of an athlete. My father was a strong swimmer, a competent diver and a passionate and skilled fly-fisherman. At Notre Dame, where he satisfied a physical education requirement by joining the cross-country team, his coach was Knute Rockne. (Coaching football apparently did not fully justify Rockne's salary at the time.)

Anyway, my father recalled that he competed in one long-distance race and finished last, so far behind the field that Rockne took him aside and told him he need not bother entering another race.

My father once wrote of himself in the third person: "He admires sports for others and might have been a great athlete himself except that he is small, puny, slow, inept, uncoordinated, myopic and yellow."

None of those adjectives applied to Povich, except possibly the first. He was an enthusiastic golfer with about an 18 handicap, his son Maury recalled. Other than that, his daughter, Lynn, said, Povich's idea of outdoor exercise was to go to the track.

Povich and my father enjoyed long careers - and "enjoyed" is the right verb. Both saw sports not as life-and-death struggles of cosmic import, but as "games little boys play."

Their commitments to their columns were such that, even in failing health, both wrote their final pieces days before they died.

For my father, his column was his contract with life. He wanted to hold up his end. He seemed to think that when he stopped writing, he would stop living. He was right. He died on Jan. 15, 1982, at the age of 76.

Shirley and Red: two parallel lives, richly lived, artfully written and lovingly remembered.

Terence Smith is senior producer and media correspondent for "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." He started his journalism career writing sports, but went straight and spent 20 years covering national and international news for The New York Times.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Decimate -- what happened to cowardly cohorts

The verb "decimate" comes from the Latin decimus, meaning "tenth." It meant to take a tenth from: tithe.

In its more bellicose application (bellicose, from bellum, meaning war), "decimate" meant to select by lot and kill every tenth man. Roman officers would do this to a cohort (ca. 480 soldiers) if they didn't fight bravely.

In modern usage, like the one below, it just means to destroy a large part of.

The scientist ascribed the ------- of the park’s remaining trees to the ------- of the same termite species that had damaged homes throughout the city.

a) decimation . . prevalence
b) survival . . presence
c) growth . . mutation
d) reduction . . disappearance
e) study . . hatching

Monday, June 9, 2008

Those Pesky Idioms

The SAT Question of the Day below turns on Harbrace Rule 20b: Choose expressions that are idiomatic.

An idiom is an expression whose meaning is peculiar to the language or differs from the individual meanings of its elements. Be careful to use idiomatic English, not unidiomatic approximations.
"She talked down to him" is iodiomatic.
"She talked under to him" is not.

Occasionally [as below] the idiomatic use of prepositions may prove difficult. [Check out the list of a dozen common "problem" usages in this section.]

Most ships move through the Suez Canal
. . . . . . . . . . . A
their own
power, but large ships
must be assisted by a tugboat.
. . . D
No error.

Friday, June 6, 2008

La Cucaracha

As "Yankee Doodle" proved, a song can change the world. "La Cucaracha" (The Cockroach) is a very old Spanish tune that probably came across the ocean with the earliest Spanish marines but gained political significance in the early 20th century.

It's the kind of song a merry crowd can improvise verses to as it goes, so there are hundreds of verses. But the main one is the chorus:

La cucaracha, la cucaracha . . . . .The cockroach, the cockroach
Ya no quieres caminar . . . . . . . . . . . . .Doesn't want to travel on
Porque no tiene, . . . . . . . . .Because she hasn't,
porque le falta, . . . . . . . . . oh, no, she hasn't,
Marijuana que fumar. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Marijuana for to smoke.)

Sometimes the last line is replaced with a bowdlerization such as limonada que tomar (lemonade to drink).

The song came to symbolize the Mexican revolution of 1910-1920, and especially Pancho Villa, the bandido/revolutionary general who eluded U.S. troops following a 1916 attack on an American border town, only to be assassinated in 1923. (One idea was that Villa, like a cockroach, could disappear in an instant, such as when the kitchen light goes on.)

Some say the jape about marijuana was directed at the dictatorial Mexican president Victoriano Huerta (ruled 1913-1914), ridiculed by his many enemies as a drunk and dope fiend who lived only for his daily weed.

An example of another verse is:

Ya la murio la cucaracha . . . . . . . The cockroach just died
Ya la lleven a enterrar . . . . .And they carried him off to bury him
Entre cuatro zopilotes . . . . . . . . . . Among four buzzards
Y un raton de sacristan. . . . . . . . And the sexton's mouse.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

When to use a comma with "or"

(from Ruge Rules)

The rule: Place a comma before "or" when what follows it means the same as what precedes it.

As in: Please pass the salt, or sodium chloride.

But: Please pass the salt or pepper.

If "or" connects a long series of different items, the above rule is sometimes disregarded.

As in: He said he would accept payment in cash, or pledges, or goods, or services, or, even, promises of political support.

It's more correct as follows:
He said he would accept payment in cash or pledges or goods or services, or, even, promises of political support.

You might also use commas in place of all but the last "or."

Our Time With RFK -- April 1968

On this, the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, we present a story from The Washington Post Sunday Magazine a few years ago, revisiting a moment in April 1968 when a group of kids met with RFK in an elementary school library. It was for the filming of a campaign ad, but it meant much more to those involved.
(If you click on the images, the story will be large enough to read.)
Below the two images is a revised, expanded version of this same story, printed in the St. Albans Alumni Bulletin this spring, sparked by the inclusion of that campaign ad from 1968 in the movie Bobby.

Our Moment with Bobby: RFK in the Parrott Library
By Brooks Clark ’74
If you watch the movie Bobby closely, you might notice a snippet of a campaign ad from 1968 showing the candidate talking with schoolchildren. Perhaps you will recognize the Lower School’s Parrott Library.
And you might even recognize some of the kids, especially an earnest blond-haired sixth-grade boy nervously holding his black plastic glasses as he sat directly across the library table from Bobby Kennedy.
That child was Paul Lee ’74, at the time my best friend, classmate in Mr. Green’s sixth grade, and four-doors-down neighbor on Garfield Street. Though he and his family moved back to their home in California after the 1968 election, we have always stayed in touch. Soon after Bobby opened, Paul began getting calls from friends who had recognized him.
How did director Emilio Estevez come upon that clip? Probably he did the same thing a summer intern at the magazine where I was an editor had done about twenty-five years after the campaign ad was filmed.
In 1993, I was catching up with Paul, by then an architect in San Francisco and father of two, and I asked him if he remembered grilling Bobby Kennedy at St. Albans. Although we’d never seen the ad, Paul told me he remembered almost every word that Kennedy had said to him that day, and we resolved to put those recollections on paper.
An intern helped us track down the three one-minute ads in a political film library at the University of Oklahoma. When we got our copies, we watched—once again—an unforgettable moment in our lives.
Our date with Senator Kennedy had come out of the blue. Since he’d entered the race just a few weeks before, Kennedy didn’t have any ads in the can, and he needed to make some in a hurry—specifically for the upcoming Indiana primary. Someone decided to film Bobby talking to children, and our neighbor Dun Gifford, then legislative aide to Ted Kennedy, called and asked my mother to round up some kids. We were instructed to prepare questions and to dress “like farm children.”
So we found ourselves on a hot Saturday afternoon in April 1968, clustered with a handful of our friends in front of the Lower School, waiting for Bobby Kennedy. In a few minutes, we were going to be filmed asking the candidate questions. Our parents, gathered a few yards away, were ecstatic, of course, even though we’d been waiting an hour.
Paul remembers that our part of Washington was eerily quiet that afternoon. At the tail end of the riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination, the National Guard had been called in and a strict curfew placed on the city. Kennedy, we were told, was coming directly from a tour of the riot areas, and he would be along soon.
“I was excited because I was pretty political,” says Randy Smith ’74, one of my classmates waiting outside that day. “I decided to ask about the government’s role in education.” His younger brother, Nick ’75, was set to ask why the government didn’t give more money to poor people.
Bob Atkins ’74, whose father worked at the Middle East desk of the State Department, remembers that his parents wanted him to ask “some nasty questions about the Middle East.”
I loved Hubert Humphrey, because of all he had done for civil rights. This was a big priority in my home. My family had moved from Nashville to Washington in 1960 after my father, the Rev. Bayard Clark, then rector of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, led a prayer vigil in support of integrating downtown lunch counters.
As a Cathedral canon, my father was present at the “I Have a Dream” speech (you can pick him out in his clerical collar in a crowd photo in Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters) and he marched at Selma. I intended to ask Kennedy why he didn’t let Humphrey take his turn first and then he could be president later.

For my buddy Paul, this was a special opportunity. Precocious, politically savvy, ready to change the world, he had already picked Kennedy as his candidate. Paul was in favor of pulling out of Vietnam and, abetted by a rebellious older sister, had even gone to protests.
Paul had drawn up a long list of questions—about nuclear disarmament, hunger, the inner city, civil rights, Vietnam. He intended to ask every one, and I had no doubts that he would. I had watched heated debates between Paul and Randy Kennedy ’73, now a Harvard Law School professor, when they both helped out Allie Ritzenberg at the St. Albans tennis shack.
Thinking about it now, I can see the contrast between me, the child yearning for order, stability, and the familiar hero, and Paul, who passionately wanted change and was internalizing the messages of King and Kennedy in a way that’s hard for most of us to imagine.
Just a few weeks before, the Poor People’s Campaign had covered the Mall from the Capitol to the Washington Monument with a sea of white tents. “I had ridden my bicycle through the tent city with a group of friends,” Paul remembers, “and what made an impression on me was the determination and sobriety of the people as they stood in long soup lines ankle deep in mud from the spring rains. They had come to demand social justice and real opportunity.”
And just days before, at the Cathedral, Paul had heard King deliver what turned out to be the last Sunday sermon of his life. Paul remembers sitting on his front steps and crying uncontrollably after hearing the news of King’s assassination.
Kennedy arrived in a red Chrysler convertible. His face was bright red. I don’t know if it was the heat of the day or the shock of what he’d just seen in the riot-scarred city. The film crew had set up lights and camera in the Parrott Library, and immediately he filled the room with his presence—the charisma, the reality of his being there. I can remem­ber the sense of seeing something from the big world come to life, something intensely real. I remember his gentle eyes and the feeling he gave us when he talked. It still sends chills up my spine when I see the old clips and when I type these words. But much of what I remember from that day was the exchange between Kennedy and Paul.
Paul sat at that li­brary table directly across from Kennedy and fired his questions—and Kennedy was magical in his responses. He listened. He answered directly and honestly. He didn’t patronize, and he projected an aura of caring and understanding.
“Kennedy started by greeting us,” Paul recalls, “letting us know he was pleased to spend this time with us.” Paul’s first impression was of a warm and caring man, his smile bracketed with wrinkles. “It was clear from the moment he sat down in front of me, however,” Paul says, “that this was not to be a ‘kids’ time’ spent on an informal chat. This was an appointment with the voters of America. I had never felt quite so adult. My palms began to sweat.”
Kennedy asked if we knew any political speeches. Some­one said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Then, says Paul, “he surprised us. Instead of diving further into politics, he said he loved poetry and asked if we had any favorite poems we could share with him. We were required to memorize a poem every week in school, so almost everyone raised his hand. He was playing to the whole room and wanted to draw everyone in.” Kennedy shared some verse by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
One phrase stuck in Paul’s mind: “my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the Western stars, until I die.” Paul recalls, “Kennedy talked about how beautiful the images were to him, and how they ex­pressed a feeling for him about our lives—of being on a quest, reaching out in uncharted directions, with confidence in a better tomorrow.”
“My first question came soon,” Paul remembers. “I had done a report for School on the fifteen republics of the Soviet Union, and I had developed a view that the people there were real, feeling people. I worried about the threat of nuclear confrontation. So I offered a leading question: ‘If you are elected president of the United States, would you consider any unilateral steps to de-escalate tension with the Soviet Union?’”
Paul was taken aback when Kennedy’s expression turned stone cold. “His look seemed to pierce right through me. He answered bluntly, ‘Absolutely not,’ and didn’t waver as he continued, ‘My experience in the Cuban Missile Crisis taught me that the leaders of the Soviet Union cannot be trusted under any circumstance.’ There were no follow-ups. The matter was closed.”
Later Paul asked what could be done about poverty in America. “Kennedy called for a partnership of government and private enterprise. One idea was to use tax incentives to stimulate in­vestment in inner cities. Another was that people in these communities would have control over their own corpo­rations, training programs, and schools. It wasn’t a government bene­fits package, he explained; it would be a national effort to instill the benefits of an entrepreneurial econo­my.”
Paul’s final question was about hunger in the world: What could Amer­ica do? Says Paul, “I remember best how knowl­edgeable he was about all the programs that had been tried. He said the Agency for International Development, the Peace Corps, the United Nations programs, and the Alliance for Progress all provided models. We would take what worked and apply it.
Something else that stood out in his answer was the way he viewed solutions in an interconnected way: hunger, he said, was not an isolated problem, but tied to population growth, land reform, education, and democratic political change.” His tone was more measured than when talking about poverty in America. The sense, according to Paul, was that “we would do the best we could, but the problems are unlikely to go away.”
The conversation was unlike any we had ever had before. Randy Smith recalls, “I remember feeling like I hadn’t ever been talked to like that by an adult, talking to us on an equal level, as if he expected us to be at his level. It wasn’t condescending.”
After the session, the students followed the senator outside. Kennedy talked to an aide who was animatedly reviewing the next item on his itinerary. Paul remembers, “Kennedy listened calmly, occasionally nodding or adding a comment to indicate that he was taking it all in. Yet he seemed to be somewhere else. While he waited for his car, I had a remarkable, tangible feeling that he somehow had an awareness that went beyond himself, that in his mind he was in touch with the hearts and aspirations of the American people.” Paul says that at that moment he realized Kennedy was a great and truly compassionate man.
“I remember him putting his hand on me, and feeling physically close to him,” says Randy Smith, “I remembered feeling that he cared.”
In the weeks that followed, Paul started volunteering for Bobby’s campaign. “Every day after school I took the N2 or N4 bus to his National Campaign Headquarters on K Street. I had two jobs: I collected the empty soda bottles for the two-cent deposit, and I was in charge of the automated letter-signing machine, monitoring the felt pen in the autographing machine and putting a new one in when it started to fade.” Every evening, Paul’s father, Phil (then the assistant secretary of health and human services), picked him up on his way home from work.
“The California primary in June was a must-win for Kennedy,” says Paul. “My parents let me move the TV into my room that night. I wasn’t satisfied by the early exit polls indicating the strong Kennedy win. I stayed up into the early-morning hours for Kennedy’s victory speech.
When he finally came down from his hotel suite, I remember the crowd went wild with joy. I will never forget his last words: ‘We are a great country, a compassionate coun­try; that is my basis for running.’ A few moments later he was drowned out by the chants of supporters.
As he disappeared behind the stage, I savored the hope that a healing of America’s wounds was on its way.” Then came the popping sound of the handgun. As he watched the panic on the screen, Paul says he sank into a daze. “It was like getting an injection,” says Paul. “I went totally numb. I probably sat there for a half-hour be­fore I went in to get my parents.”
“He’d become like a hero to me,” says Randy Smith. “The night of the primary I was staying up. I could draw pictures of this I remember it so well. My mom made me go to bed. ‘You can find out in the morning.’ When I woke up I asked, ‘Did he win?’ She said, ‘Yeah, he won, but he was shot.” I spent the whole day in the house. I sat by the radio in my parents’ bedroom. I was completely depressed. I just felt like it was wrong.”
In the days that Kennedy was clinging to life, Nick Smith and a friend went to the Children’s Chapel in the Cathedral. “We prayed for hours and hours that he would live.”
Paul Lee reacted much differently to this assassination than he had to Martin Luther King’s, when he had sat on his front steps and cried. “The feeling I had in the days and weeks that followed the assassination of Robert Kennedy was an emotional numbness. I did not have any focal point for my grief. No one talked to me about it. Not at home or church or school—we were already out for the summer—or among friends.
“I was completely in a state of shock. I didn’t feel any pain. I never cried about it,” Paul recalls. “A sort of depression set in that I didn’t recognize at the time. There was a boredom I had never experienced before. I pulled away from things political, afraid to stand up for anything. From that moment on, I lost my emotions.” Paul’s depression lasted for more than two decades.
In 1993, after the intern discovered the tape, I sent copies to Paul, Randy, and Nick to view. Watching the tape was an experience for us. The camera zooms in on Paul’s face as he nervously holds his black plastic glasses, and on Nick and Randy, looking like angels as Kennedy explains the problems of the poor. “I was impressed at how pertinent Kennedy’s comments were today,” says Nick, who’s now an architect in Washington. Seeing the tape made Randy, now a partner at the law firm of Smith & Fawer in New Orleans, contrast that assassination with King’s. “King’s death was a terrible shock. But I didn’t know him personally.”
Bob Atkins ’74, who left St. Albans in seventh grade, visible in the back of the room in the ads, is now a father of three and a management consultant in Lexington, Mass. Watching the campaign ads, Bob real­ized something he never had as a kid. “I’d gone to high school at Middlesex School in Massachusetts with [Bobby’s middle child] David Kennedy.” David Kennedy, alone in his room at the Ambassador Hotel, had watched on TV as his father was assassinated in the kitchen many floors below. He lived a troubled life, and died of a drug overdose. “I never really thought about the impact that the assassination must have had on him until I had kids,” Bob admits. “There’s no way you could ever forget.”
For Paul, watching the tape helped complete a healing process that had begun after the recent deaths of two friends. In feeling grief, in crying uncontrollably for his friends, he felt an emotional dam break inside him. “I realized I hadn’t felt this way in years. It had been like a twenty-year Novocain dose,” says Paul. “It had affected my whole life.
“I think the cumulative effect of the deaths of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and then Robert Kennedy was to break my passion and hope.” After watching the tapes, Paul started talking with friends about this. “They said, in effect, you’re not alone. Our whole generation’s spirit was broken.”
It’s easy, today, to look back on these impressions cynically—to view them through the prism of the in­tervening years. But Bobby was a hero. And he did leave an impression that doesn’t fade. And how did it af­fect us as a nation to lose him? It’s a question we don’t allow ourselves to consider much. It’s too painful to deal with.
In making the film Bobby, Emilio Estevez was no doubt trying to recapture the passion and feeling of Bobby as a hero. In including that snippet of tape, he couldn’t have known how right he was.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Evan Bayh as a Right Tackle in High School Football

The St. Albans Bulldogs seniors, fall 1973, including Dartmouth '78s Weare Zwemer (60), Nick Lowery (9), Ellen Meyer Shorb's husband Paul (64), and Brooks Clark (76).
Evan Bayh (above right) is No. 74 in the picture.

Manly, reckless, fearless, immature or fearful?

What a dandy quintet of words in the SAT Question of the Day below! They certainly beg for some mnemonic ways to remember what they all mean.

"Virile" comes from the Latin "vir" or man, which became "wer" in Old English, which we know only from "werewolf," or man-wolf. It means manly, strong, energetic.

"Heedless" describes someone who won't take heed--- that is, pay attention or observe caution.

"Dauntless" refers to someone who is fearless, whose courage will not be tamed--a "daunting" challenge is one that provokes fear or dismay.

"Callow" comes from the Greek word for bald (kalo), and refers to a bird that hasn't yet grown its feathers. Of course we always think of the "callow youth" of The Red Badge of Courage. It means immature.

"Timorous," sounds like what it is. Like "timid," it comes from the Latin "timor" meaning fear and means fearful.

SAT Question of the Day

Because he was ------- in the face of danger, the explorer won the government’s highest award for conspicuous bravery.

a) virile
b) heedless
c) dauntless
d) callow
e) timorous

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

In praise of lyric poems -- an ode


ode (rhymes with code) noun
A lyric poem celebrating a person, event, thing, etc., written in an exalted style.
[From Greek oide (song), ultimately from Indo-European root wed- (to speak) that's also the source of parody, comedy, tragedy, melody, and rhapsody.]

Today's word in Visual Thesaurus.

"The song, an ode to the nation on the occasion of Independence Day, takes on an extra dimension after 7/11* with its inspirational words."
-- Rajiv Vijayakar; Sonu Nigam's Ode to the Nation; Screen Weekly (New Delhi, India); Aug 11, 2006.
*July 11, 2006 bomb blasts in commuter trains in Mumbai, India.

Monday, June 2, 2008

College Essay Camp at Tufts

You don't know whether to laugh or cry reading the Wall Street Journal story at right (from 2005) about high schoolers going to camp and signing up for on-line courses to figure out how to craft the killer "college essay."
The last sentence of the piece -- "And the diamond buckle: 'I always find a way to shine,' she says." -- will surely make us gag. One wonders whether some of these services might teach the applicants to sound like egotistical jerks, or maybe it comes naturally.
Still, there are some tips herein:
Thomas O'Neill, admissions director at Chicago, says the school is asking "how does this person handle ideas?"
James Hughes, a high school English teacher in California (and Tufts Essay Camp counselor), advises, "Show us something about yourself, not everything about yourself. You want to offer something only you could write," and "what makes it interesting is the detail."
So you want something original. Well, how do you think of something original? Chuck Berry, who more or less invented rock and roll guitar some 50-odd years ago, always insists, "There is nothing new under the sun," that every guitar lick he created was just Charlie Christian, Muddy Waters, Elmore James and many other guitarists who came before him put together in a different way. Sometimes, you can be original and not know it.
Rule of Thumb: you can't think of something original when someone sits you down and tells you to. Instead, think of what you'd rather be writing about. Or what is the last thing you absolutely had to tell a friend about?
Another rule of thumb: Probably it's easier to put down some ideas for a college application essay now, in June, than it will be under a deadline next fall.

A few years ago a friend who works in New York City couldn't think what to write in his 25th Reunion essay. I suggested he might write about the unusual morning when he walked up out of the subway and saw a 747 slam into his office building, and how that affected him. He hadn't thought of that. Sometimes the best topics are right in front of us, but we don't see them.
Probably millions of youngsters would love to write about why they love Harry Potter books. Probably each Potter-lover could do that, and each essay might be unique in its own way.
As Mr. O'Neill says, it's how you handle ideas.
Coming soon: "What's an idea?"