Columns

Still afloat on the pond of English 101

I am absolutely not going to tell you how many years ago I took English 101.

For one thing, I’m not good at math – something my college transcript verifies. For another thing, it was a really long time ago. How long ago? Well, let’s just say all of my essays were handwritten. In cursive. In pen. No, not with quill and ink.

Memories of that class were triggered when our youngest son headed out the door to Eastern Washington University last week. He’s not taking 101 – he’s teaching it.

Sam’s first day of teaching English 101/First day of kindergarten.

Sam is in the final year of his graduate degree and is a composition instructor in the English Graduate Student Assistantship Program. His 22nd birthday was Friday, but he’s already teaching a class of 24 students.

He’s relishing his new role, and I’m sure his students will benefit from his enthusiasm. For many of them, English 101 will be just another required class to get out of the way, but perhaps for some the class will trigger a desire to learn more about writing.

That’s exactly what happened to me at Spokane Falls Community College.

At 18, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. The career aptitude tests I took my senior year of high school pointed me toward fashion merchandising. I’m pretty sure that’s just a fancy way to say retail sales clerk, but I could be wrong.

Dad said college would be a better place to discover my aptitudes and paid for my first quarter at SFCC. I’d been the editor of our school newspaper and co-editor of the yearbook, so English classes didn’t scare me. I was far more terrified of classes involving math – a justified fear as evidenced in the above-mentioned transcripts.

I’m sorry to say, I don’t remember the name of my English 101 instructor. I do remember he was also the tennis coach and often wore his tennis whites to class. Maybe fashion merchandising should have been my thing, after all.

Yet, he’s the one who lit the spark of interest – who first made me wonder if perhaps writing was something I could actually be good at. To be sure, 101 is the most basic of college classes. Students typically learn the different stages of writing: gathering material, drafting ideas, revising drafts, editing and proofreading.

Sitting on my desk is one of the first essays I wrote for that class. The title? “From Duckling to Swan,” in which I related my middle school to high school transformation.

Honestly, reading it now is cringe-inducing, but I’ve saved it all these years because of the comment the instructor wrote in pencil on the title page.

“An essay like this can keep you afloat in the pond of 101.”

When that paper landed on my desk, after he first read it to the class, it was an a-ha moment for me. I thought, “This is it! This is what I want to do. I want to write and I want people to read what I’ve written.”

And here we are.

Now, it’s Sam’s turn to make a difference.

Who knows? Maybe someday a writer will sit down to pen a newspaper column or write a book, and remember an English 101 class at EWU, and the instructor who encouraged her to believe that she had a way with words. And perhaps that teacher’s name will be Sam Hval.

It wouldn’t surprise me a bit.

Columns

Back-to-school one way or another

Stacks of notebook paper, piles of pencils, boxes of crayons jumbled with packages of highlighters and erasers spilling out across our bed; it used to feel like Christmas in September.

With four kids, shopping for school supplies was no small undertaking. We lived on one income until our youngest entered kindergarten, and our budget was chronically tight. But I loved school, and I wanted our boys to love it, too, so when it came to back-to-school shopping I splurged.

Then the day before school started, I’d invite the boys, one at a time, to come into my bedroom and fill their new backpacks. We’d go over the grade-level list of supplies provided by the school, and carefully organize each backpack. That was usually the last time my kids’ school stuff was well-organized, so I liked to make the most of it.

We’d chat about classes, teachers and friends. I got to hear what they were nervous about and what they were most excited about.

Of course, by the time they reached middle school, I’d just toss pencils and notebooks in their bedrooms and prayed they’d remember to take them. Power Ranger and Super Mario backpacks had given way to serviceable black or gray items from Costco, and no one needed a Spider-Man lunchbox.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our back-to-school traditions, because for many families it’s still unclear what school will look like this year. In my neighborhood one thing is certain; the big yellow school bus won’t be rumbling down our street and squealing to a stop to pick up waiting students.

The schoolyard I pass on my daily walk will most likely retain its summertime vacancy. No shouting kids playing tag, no friendly faces rushing up to the fence to wave, and empty listless swings.

I’m worried.

I’m a mother – it’s what I do. If I’m not concerned about my kids, then I’m worried about someone else’s.

When schools shut down this spring, our street filled with kids, riding bikes, skateboarding and bouncing basketballs.

“Aren’t they supposed to be doing distance learning, or something?” I asked my husband.

He shrugged.

As someone who once regularly battled her kids about too much screen time, it seems so surreal that screen time is now school time.

I’m sure many families will handle virtual learning well, but I’m worried about the ones who won’t.

Honestly? I’m not sure I would have been able to swing it with my pack of wild boys.

When our youngest son had a rough day at school, he’d say, “Why can’t I be home-schooled?”

“Because you weren’t blessed with a saint for a mother,” I’d reply.

This year, he finally got his wish. Sam will have all online classes. Of course, he’s a 20-year-old graduate student at EWU, but hey, he’s finally home-schooled.

In Ohio where my son and his family live, the district decided to do 100% remote learning. His 7-year-old stepdaughter is devastated. She’s a sociable kid, and was so excited to go back and see her friends, but her mom is glad she won’t have to wear a mask all day or bring home germs to her twin brothers.

Many of my teacher friends are eager to get back into their classrooms, while others are fearful of worsening the pandemic by opening schools too early.

There are no easy answers, just adults working together, trying to make the wisest decisions for our children.

This I know: Kids are resilient. Learning doesn’t happen on exact calendar days. Most younger students absorb new routines quickly and soak up knowledge in myriad ways.

I wonder what stories they’ll recount to their children and grandchildren about The Year We All Stayed Home.

Only time will tell what was lost and what was gained.

For now, when I pass that empty schoolyard I pray for the children who used to swarm the playground. I pray they are safe, healthy and learning, and that someday soon the echoes of their happy shouts will be replaced by the real thing.