People with schizophrenia sometimes suffer from a condition known as schizophasia, a chaotic speech pattern composed of unrelated, illogical words and phrases. It’s – well, it’s really sad, actually – a symptom of a destructive mental illness that will hopefully subside with treatment. So what am I supposed to do when my otherwise mentally healthy students (so they say) seem to suffer from the same disease, but on paper?
Before I started teaching, I was under the impression that college freshmen would possess a certain amount of proficiency in using the English language. After all, if they’ve made it to my class, then they’ve somehow managed to survive 13 years of prior education. Surely, somewhere along the lines, some English teacher forced them to diagram sentences until their fingers bled and until they were mentally double-underlining the predicates in their friends’ speech. Surely some maniacal high school teacher with a red pen went apeshit on their essays, frantically jabbing at the page until it resembled the aftermath of a Manson Family creepy crawl with ‘Helter Skelter’ scrawled in the white space. I mean, these are the tenets of a model English education, right? Torture and shame?
Oh, wishful thinking, that harlot of trickery! I anticipated uninspiring prose and occasional misplaced commas. I failed to anticipate that some of the students our admissions board calls “higher education ready” are unable to form even a single, coherent sentence. It’s as if there’s a tiny goblin hiding in their brains feeding their sentences into a slap chop and then piecing them back together with bits of chewed up bubble gum.
They can’t even produce writing at the level of a fourth-grader reciting a ‘How I Spent My Summer Vacation’ essay (I got a new dog. I named him Merkin. I played ball with him. We had fun.)
In my first semester of teaching, I had a student I’ll call David. His writing was so dreadfully slap-chopped together, I thought for sure that it couldn’t be real. At first, I thought my boss had planted a fake student in my class, like a suspicious parent who uses one of those nanny-cam teddy bears to make sure the kids aren’t getting roofied, stuffed into the spin cycle of the washing machine or duct-taped to a chair.
Here is an example of what David’s writing looked like: “I was a kid, little I loved bear going four after with him every day with him after looking school the time pie expansion.” It looked like a sentence at first glance, but closer inspection revealed a monstrosity. It was like that scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where Cameron looks a little too closely at a Seurat painting:
From far away, it looks beautiful, serene, lucid, but up close it is a horrifying mess. Every sentence in his essay would look like this, so that by the time I’d finished reading the first paragraph, I thought I was schizophrenic or that I was having some kind of petit-mal seizure. I asked my husband to read over the essay to confirm that I was not, in fact, going to die from a brain aneurysm (I had already WebMD’d myself into a state of hypochondriac paranoia and was 97% convinced that I had a brain aneurysm or a brain tumor – possibly lupus or flesh-eating bacteria).
Clearly this student had a problem at a most fundamental level. He spoke very clearly and did not have a registered disability, but a chimpanzee sitting at a typewriter could produce more meaningful work. My fellow adjuncts and I had been forbidden by our department chair from teaching basic grammar in the classroom; after all, we were teaching college students and should be focusing on higher-level writing issues. Of course, this directive was coming from a guy who dressed like Danny Zuko in the final scene of Grease, talked like Larry David and described himself as an anarchist (because if there is one profession that says ‘anarchy’ it is being the head of a department hierarchy).
I tend to agree with his position on the issue, but I felt bad for David. Yet, as much as I suggested that he visit the Tutoring Center or the Writing Center to get help outside of class, he did not do so and continued to fail each essay. He truly seemed to think the one with the problem was me (in a way, I suppose he was right).
This was the most infuriating part of the experience. He seemed completely shocked when I would return a paper to him with an F, explaining that it was incomprehensible. It was as if I had insulted the Bard himself! “I worked really hard on this!” he would exclaim, affronted, as if grades were based upon effort, not actual performance. “I understand that,” I would tell him, “but it seems like you need some outside help. Your sentence structure makes it impossible to read this.” He seemed shocked, and I was shocked at his shock. Had he never received criticism of his writing before?
Several other thoughts blitz-attacked my brain during this experience with David: A) How did this kid graduate high school? Are the standards of public schools now so low that this complete lack of competence is acceptable? B) What kind of college is this that admits students who are clearly so ill-prepared for college-level work? C) This is the Composition 2 class, which means that this student has already taken and passed the prerequisite Composition 1 class. How? Why? Is this an episode of the Twilight Zone? Is Rod Serling here? I thought he was dead. Is he a zombie? Can I get his autograph?
My bosses boss, someone, somewhere, some gleeful Buddy the Elf with a giant ‘approved’ stamp, had approved this student – had determined that this student possessed the necessary skills to succeed in college writing classes. David was fed a lie. Some misguided teacher had perpetuated it. The student was drowning in his own ignorance and I had no idea how to help him. His problems were so systemic, I didn’t even know where to begin. So what did I do with David and others like him?
I didn’t “correct” them in the manner of Delbert Grady, the super creepy butler from The Shining, but judging from their reactions, you might have thought I was a psychopath who wanted to chop their bodies into pieces. I failed them.
The next semester I ran into David again. He was with his new comp. 2 teacher, who I recognized as his former Composition 1 teacher – the one who had previously passed him. After making eye contact with me, David exclaimed to his teacher “That’s her! That’s the teacher I’ve been telling you about!” I realized I had been the subject of conversations between the two of them, and I imagined David storming into his class on the first day, poutily explaining to his buddy the teacher that some succubus had failed him. For a second I thought they were going to go all West Side Story or Cobra Kai on me and put me in a body bag, but they didn’t. We exchanged pleasantries and parted ways. The cycle would continue. The cycle, unfortunately, will continue still.
At least some of the word salad I have to choke down is actually somewhat beautiful, like bizarre, abstract poetry. One student in particular, an older lady named Ruth, produced some of the loveliest nonsense I’ve ever read next to Faulkner or e.e. cummings: “I love ocean the stars on the glistening watching the sparkling surface the moon.” Of course, she failed the class, but I think she missed her calling.
Most of my other students can at least manage a bare minimum of written communication skills, but every now and then they amuse me with their carelessness or obliviousness. I once asked students to define their idea of ‘success’ (which yielded very disheartening, but characteristically American, results). One student wrote about how he wanted to get famous, make a lot of money and buy a lot of things (without much insight into what skills he would use to attain that end). I think he just assumed that his natural charm and wit would throw him into the public eye and money would begin to rain down upon him.
He wrote, “When I think about those things and what I’m going to do to have those things, I just go into a daze and my body gets all hyped up and I just start pumping myself.” It took me several long seconds of staring in disgust at the page to realize he wasn’t writing about masturbating to the thought of his own self-centered materialism. He meant ‘pumping myself up’ as in ‘getting pumped’ or ‘getting hyped.’ But he wrote ‘pumping myself.’
Another student wrote about a fight she had with a friend and how she went into a ‘ranging furry.’ Naturally, this made me think of furries, also known as plushies – you know, grown men and women who dress in animal costumes and meet up in hotel rooms across the country to “do their taxes.” I kind of hate that I know this, and I have 30 Rock to thank for the knowledge.
Also, do yourself a favor and DON’T do a Google image search for ‘furries’ or ‘adults in animal costumes.’ You will not be able to unsee, nor will you be able to erase that from your search history.
Perhaps television truly is rotting my brain. I should have just imagined something like this when I read ‘ranging furry.’
Instead, I imagined plushophiles (which is also in my search history now).
Also, if you haven’t figured it out yet, the student was trying to write ‘raging fury.’
By now you might be thinking, “Wow, you sound like a terrible teacher. I can’t believe you’re making fun of your students this way. Have you no decency? Teachers like you are the reason students don’t succeed.”
Bonus Round: What words were these students trying to write (answers below): Ordicale, Sicodic, Hertary.
Figured it out yet?
Answers: Article, Psychotic, Hereditary