Volume 24, Number 3
Spring 1997


In the Beginning Was the

Richard Peck

Back in the dear, dead days of my teaching, very near the end of them in fact, a teacher on our English faculty pursued a curious pastime. During her colleagues' free periods, she entered our classrooms, none too subtly, and went through our brimming wastebaskets, looking for evidence against us. Then she'd plant it around the faculty lounge, as if we'd absent-mindedly left among the smokers stray notes to ourselves, randomly spelled, and isolated pages of abandoned lesson plans. There's a human virus on many staffs, and this one was far too feared for anyone to characterize her behavior as anything beyond harmless eccentricity. One day she hit paydirt in my wastebasket.

With fourteen-year-olds I was reading Richard Llewellyn's How Green Was My Valley . It was on the reading list, and I found it teachable but not as accessible as I'd hoped. The students, sunk in both puberty and New York City, persisted in believing that the setting of the novel was fictitious rather than fictionalized. "No," I tired of saying, "it's Wales, a real place. And when the miners go up to London to sing before the Queen, she's a monarch from actual history: Queen Victoria. This novel arises from the conditions of a real place and time and tradition." Etc.

A few of the gifted had heard of the coal country of West Virginia and maintained that the novel was American, with characters speaking in one of those incomprehensible non-New York dialects.

"No, it's Wales," I moaned. "Wales, I tell you."

I saw this as symptom of a larger problem: that fourteen-year-old conviction that whatever they have never heard of doesn't exist.

The year was 1970. Whatever geography had ever been taught in that school had been phased out, and the History department had been renamed "Social Sciences" or some such.

I went home to think.

Then I drew a careful map of the British Isles, highlighting Wales. There's an amateur cartographer inside me, struggling to get out, and I made my map pictorial and had some fun with the quaint vocabulary of Welsh place names.

Another thrust of the novel is that the Welsh as a subject people were in fact bilingual. Major tension involves the language being imposed upon Welsh students by teachers from England. My students were pretty nearly as resentful at having their own native language imposed upon them, and this novel raised the problem that all novels did. It was full of vocabulary they did not know, and I don't mean hard-to-spell turns of Welsh phrase. I mean standard English.

Possibly in some Education course in college I'd heard that the most effective way of learning vocabulary is in the context of reading. But this reckons without the youthful ability to skip over any unfamiliar word and keep going. Here I came to my students' aid. I lifted useful English words from How Green Was My Valley and handed them out on lists to be looked up and learned. This invariably caused some class member to say, "Where in the world do you get these words?"

I stooped low and implied that they'd come from last year's PSAT's. We found class time to go over and even practice our new vocabulary. I stooped lower, offering extra credit to anyone who incorporated one of these words in a composition.

One day I dropped into the faculty lounge. I smoked in those days; teaching had driven me to it. As I entered, my colleague was addressing the entire lounge, holding them in thrall. I heard just three terms before she tapered off: "rote learning," "map study," and "fascist." The lounge was littered with somehow familiar hand-drawn maps of the British Isles and vocabulary lists. My colleague left the lounge under full sail. After all, my classroom was presently unoccupied.

An awkward pause fell. Then another colleague said, hesitantly, "The thing is, you see, she seems to feel that a work of literature shouldn't be . . . used as a . . . device to teach . . . mechanics."

"Anything else?" I said, ominously calm. "When do we get to the fascist part?"

"Well, she seems to think that the setting of a novel should be in the young readers' frame of reference and not in the writer's. She really believes we should liberate students from the provincial and often nationalistic parameters imposed by authors. Male authors, mainly."

"Ah," I said.

My teaching ground to a halt in that school, in that time. I left to try to be a writer for the students I'd left behind, and my evidence-gathering colleague went on to be the head of the English department.

I became a novelist, and novelists are chronic collectors of Scenes from Life, including that one. To fuel our fiction we poke through our earlier experiences and observations like so many -- wastebaskets, looking for words, foraging for phrases.

We wrack our brains because I found, too late, that writing is sitting alone in an empty room, trying to make a blank page speak. The idea that a novel is written one word at a time hit me like falling masonry.

As a teacher I'd noticed that my students didn't have enough vocabulary to read appreciatively, speak persuasively, and listen skeptically. As a writer, I noticed that I didn't have the vocabulary I need to speak in all the varied voices that even a single novel needs.

Sitting alone in my room, I was unnerved by how quickly language alters, how suddenly a phrase passes its sell-by date, and how easily adult authors reveal their years and show their hands when they fail to capture the changing rhythms of young speech. Slang is a snare of course. It comes and it goes, and some of it is regional. But even standard English grows suspect when you're writing a novel one word at a time in the voices of a generation you never were.

Writing for me became an eternal word-search. After all, an estimated ten-thousand new words and terms enter the language every year, many briefly, some to stay. Wonk is one of them, and I'm afraid it's here for good. When I quit teaching, I left behind the Woodstock generation, mouthing their Strawberry Statement: "make love, not war/never trust anybody over thirty." I looked up a scant quarter century later to hear a different generation, their children in fact, speaking a linguistically barbaric new pseudo-language called "computer talk," and I didn't know a word of it.

In order not to end up as road kill on the information highway, I acquired a copy of Webster's New World Dictionary of Computer Terms and started reading Byte magazine. Then I wrote a novel with a nearly autobiographical title: Lost in Cyberspace , an innocent little satire that plays with the terminology, the lingua franca of a new generation more computer-literate than literate. To find the narrator for it, I tried to imagine Bill Gates at puberty, which wasn't, somehow, so difficult.

Do we tell them in the creative writing class that to be a writer you have to be a collector of words, and love them for themselves? Do we tell them that each fictional character must speak with a distinct diction unless you're writing for television? Do we tell them what diction means? Do we point out that to a writer words are not mechanical parts but living things with beating hearts? Do we share with them the sensual satisfaction of finding just the right word and erasing the so-so?

In student compositions do we circle the repeated word, the lazy word, the boring word? Do we suggest better ones and encourage a search for more? Or do we give them grades on rough drafts, grateful for what we can get?

Doris Buchanan Smith once said that she was a writer because of The Readers' Digest "It Pays to Increase Your Word Power" page. That recalled to me a childhood of waiting for the monthly arrival of that magazine and that page. I loved those new words for themselves, for their interesting shapes and checkered family histories. This was a pure love because I dared not dream of being a writer. Almost all of the writers in our school literature anthology were dead people, so I thought you had to be dead to be read unless you were Robert Frost.

But can we teach a love for language, a wonder at words? We can try.

We can have The Word for the Day, prominently displayed, and perhaps phrases drawn from the newspaper of recent events. (A new survey reveals that fewer than half of high-school seniors recognize the phrase "cold war.") We can send word lists from assigned reading home to be reviewed and learned with parents; and, while there might be parents who wouldn't rise to that, it's all right to let them know that the school has literacy standards whether they do or not. We can read more poetry with our students and make concessions to their fondness for rhyme. It won't necessarily turn the classroom into a Hallmark card, and a little Housman never hurt anybody. We can even (speak this softly) require some memorization.

We can rise well above "controlled vocabulary materials." Here we may meet resistance without our own ranks. There are some holdouts who still maintain that confronting the young with unfamiliar terms is as damaging to their self-esteem as scarring them with accurate grades. We can devote more class time to reading and writing and less to class discussion now that we've learned class discussion doesn't cure the young of "like" and "you know," you know? Besides class discussions are conducted by the designated few before an audience of the others.

But what of that growing legion of those satisfied with their present store of language because they speak the way all their friends do? We owe them the truth that survival regularly depends upon communicating with strangers. Some of us have built entire careers on that basis.

There are things we can do, and we need to do them because we're the only proponents of language in the lives of many young people. We believe what they haven't yet learned: that being well-read isn't just for English majors, that being well-spoken isn't just for speech majors. We believe that without literacy you will fail at whatever you want to do, that if you can't use language, it will be used against you.

And now the final scene, appended in the understanding that even English teachers like happy endings.

Just the other day I was out for a stroll, in flight from my writing desk. As I came past the Museum of Natural History, my path was barred by a woman on the approach to middle age. She stopped dead and thrust a finger at me.

"You," she said. "You turned me on to words. I was in your ninth-grade English class. I never noticed words before that. Then I did."

I wasn't quick enough to ask if she remembered reading How Green Was My Valley . She'd already marched past me, resuming her power walker's pace.

And I turned back toward home with a spring in my step, back to the desk and the blank page, the work search and the brimming wastebasket.

Author of over twenty novels, including award winning Father Figure and Are You in the House Alone? , Richard Peck was an ALAN Award recipient.

Copyright 1997. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not inteded for resale in any form.

Reference Citation: Peck, Richard. (1997) In the beginning... The ALAN Review , Volume 24, Number 3, 2-4.