Monthly Archives: September 2013

Growing Older Teaching 1984

My annotated copy of 1984

My annotated copy of 1984

When I first started teaching 1984 in 2004, I was thirty-five and still fresh out of graduate school. Standing in front of a summer class of students shivering in their shorts, t-shirts and flip flops while the air conditioned blasted frigid air all around the room at a temperature designed to cool men in three piece suits, I asked the students about Winston Smith’s age.

 “How old is Winston Smith?” I was holding a dry erase marker in the air, ready to write the correct answer on the board.

A couple of students shifted in their seats, some looked down at their books, avoiding eye-contact.

“Winston is described at length in Chapter One,” I remind them, hoping their brains hadn’t frozen over.

A blonde guy in one of the middle rows raised his hand.

“He’s really old,” he said, and the all the others around him nodded.

Now, students always find it alarming when teachers laugh out loud because they always think the teacher is laughing at them, but I didn’t know that yet, and I let out a loud, hearty laugh, the kind that I’m known for by friends.

“Really, old?” I said, once I recovered. “How old is really old?” I held up the book to remind them that it was in the book where they could find the answer.

About half of the class, looked down at their books, the high school student taking a college class in summer furrowed her brow in real concentration as she flipped the pages of Chapter one.“Thirty-nine,” the high school student said, raising her hand.

“That’s right; Winston is thirty-nine. Is that old?”

“Well, he seems old,” another student said. “He can barely walk up stairs and his face is all rough and …” The student looks down at his book.

“Sanguine,” I say. “It means like blood red. Maybe he has those red marks that old people get on their skin. I have some of those.”

“How old are you, Ms. G?” asked the student who called Winston old.

“I am thirty-five,” I say, looking right at the student. He was no more than eighteen or nineteen.

“Thirty-five, I didn’t know you were that old!”

The smart high school student jerked her head up from her book to see my reaction.

And again, I laughed, one of those loud laughs where my head goes back and my mouth opens wide.

“Yes, I’m that old,” I say still laughing.

The next time I taught the book, a year older, I warned the students not to call Winston old, knowing that before long, I’d be the same age, and then older like I am now.

I started teaching 1984 in freshman composition because in addition to being a college level writing course, it’s also a course designed to develop critical thinking, which is, really, what the book 1984 is all about. The book also addresses fears about writing. There’s that great moment where Winston faces the blank page of his journal and has no idea what to say, even though the ideas had been roaming around in his head.  

      For some time he sat gazing stupidly at the paper. It seemed curious that he seemed         not merely to have lost the power of expressing himself, but even to have forgotten           what it was that he had originally intended to say. For weeks past he had been                   making ready for this moment, and it had never crossed his mind that anything would       be needed except courage. (Orwell 7)

Over the years, students have expressed a similar idea. Most commonly, they report having the ideas in their head where they sound great, but not being able to get the ideas the way they sound in the their heads onto the paper. This of course has to do with the fact that writing is one of the few activities in which both sides of the brain must work together, and doing that takes a lot of practice, and because it’s so hard, it takes a lot of courage too. However, in 1984, once Winston  gets going, his ideas begin to form in front of him, showing how the act of writing can help us work out how we feel about things, revealing or helping us form our opinions about things we didn’t know we even had opinions about.

Students like discussing these aspects of the book, but they have over the years got hung up on things that I never expected them to get hung up on or to not find humor in the things I find funny, passages that Orwell wrote for the intention getting people to think and laugh all at the same time.

Until I started warning them against it, it was inevitable for some student to raise his hand and call Julia, Winson’s formerly promiscuous lover, a slut. Now that I teach the book in a higher level English course, a course that teaches logical fallacies, I can point out that such a comment is a double standard fallacy, but back when I was teaching it comp, I had to work hard to explain that one read of the text, that Julia’s sexuality is her rebellion, her response to the oppression she must live under. But after hearing the comment for several years in a row, I heard myself say, “If it wasn’t for girls like Julia, some guys would never get laid.”

This time it wasn’t I who laughed out loud, but an older student, the mom, in fact, of another student in the class; they were taking the class together. She let out one of those little laughs that she choked back, then nodded her head and smiled. Her son, sitting right next to her at the long table in the front of the class, stared straight ahead, maybe hoping that majority of the class still hadn’t figured out that they were related in spite of the fact that they had the same last name.

I continue to teach 1984 for all of it’s important messages, in spite of how dark it is and how depressed it can make some students, but some students might not find it so depressing if they recognized Orwell’s humor. In particular, Orwell likes potty humor or humor about body odor, things that an old lady like me can still appreciate. The punchlines to this humor often comes at the expense of Parson, or characters like him who are stupid or don’t care to think deeply about anything, like in this description:  

       He was a fattish but active man of paralysing stupidity, a mass of imbecile                            enthusiasms — one of those completely unquestioning, devoted drudges on whom,            more even than on the Thought Police, the stability of the Party depended. At thirty-          five he had just been unwillingly evicted from the Youth League, and before                          graduating into the Youth League he had managed to stay on in the Spies for a year            beyond the statutory age. At the Ministry he was employed in some subordinate post        for which intelligence was not required, but on the other hand he was a leading figure        on the Sports Committee and all the other committees engaged in organizing                      community hikes, spontaneous demonstrations, savings campaigns, and voluntary            activities generally. He would inform you with quiet pride, between whiffs of his pipe,        that he had put in an appearance at the Community Centre every evening for the past        four years. An overpowering smell of sweat, a sort of unconscious testimony to the            strenuousness of his life, followed him about wherever he went, and even remained          behind him after he had gone. (Orwell 22)

And then there’s the scene in Part Three of the novel, the scene in the Ministry of Love when Parsons is arrested for thoughtcrime and is in the same cell as Winston and uses the toilet in the cell “loudly and abundantly” only to find that the toilet does not flush. Some students are too subsumed by the darkness of the situation or the coldness of the novel to find anything funny, even if that’s Orwell’s intention, and others sadly, just don’t read closely, or well enough to get it, but I’ve been told that my enthusiasm for the novel and my youthfulness, in spite of my chronological age, helps them to get it, become better readers, and better critical thinkers in the end, after all, which is a good thing because, while we’ll all get old, we don’t have to wind up like Winston.

Sewing Mama: What I Learned Learning To Sew

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It’s strange. Whenever I sit down at the sewing machine, I feel like my mom, the same flick of the wrist when I drop the foot lever down, the snip, snip, sound of my scissors cutting the thread. I haven’t been sewing long, but each time but each time I do, I learn something new about mom and understand why she has wanted me to learn all these years.

You see, like most women, I have resisted being like my mom, even though I know very well that I sound like her, laugh loud like her, and I have a bit of that wild woman in me like her too, and even though sewing is how she makes her living today, I have always associated using a sewing machine with those dark days in high school, her in her full-blown addiction behind the sewing machine all day and all night for two or three days in a row, and me doing everything I could to get away from it all.

Though, my first memory of sewing is a good one. I am sitting in the back yard of our house in Menlo Park with my mom. She is teaching me to hand sew. I am working on my lap, the sun is warm on my head, and I am happy. Then I lift the fabric to show my mom my work and my whole skirt comes with it. I have sewn the hem of my pillow case project right to the skirt that I happened to be wearing – my favorite skirt. I start to cry immediately.

“Don’t cry; we can get that out.” She leans my way and smiles, then digs in her tin of sewing supplies and pulls out a seam ripper.

I sit in my blouse and underwear while she pulls each seam one by one, freeing my favorite skirt from the pillow fabric.

Being taught to hand sew at the age of four is something that I have always cherished, and it came in handy many times over the years, but even though I knew it would be convenient to know how to sew on a machine, and even though I have always had one in my house, I was too afraid to learn. I have owned a number of sewing machines given to me by mom, sewing machines that I never used. Sewing machines that my mom thought were as necessary as a plunger or vacuum were to own, sewing machines that I feared, that collected dust, that were only used when my mom came to visit and I needed something hemmed: a pair of jeans, a second-hand dress.  I left the cute blue one, which she claimed was easy to use, behind in the attic of a house I rented in my twenties. She took back the heavy black Singer because I had complained it smelled like it was on fire and because she knew it was too complicated to ever operate on my own. It was tricky to thread and then there’s the thing with the bobbin casing, requiring a mechanic’s know-how, sewing machine oil, and screwdrivers. Then two years ago, the stakes higher than ever before, with me, her oldest daughter now in her forties, she bought me a new current model machine. She never gave up on the idea of passing this craft on to one of her children; she never gave up the idea of me, the family academic (good with my brain but not with my hands), learning to operate a machine, learning to sew.

It wasn’t until I learned to embroider that I got the courage to sew on the new machine.  I had run out of the hemmed tea towels that I like to use for embroidery, and I was in the middle of a project.  A few months previous, my mom had hemmed several for me using the machine she bought, even showing me how to do it myself. She did the first few for me, and I did a few on my own with her standing over my shoulder, teaching me how to guide the fabric through without the screw from the needle casing slamming down on my finger. And now, months later, I was in the middle of a project; I was all out of the towels we had hemmed together. There wasn’t time to wait for my mommy to come down and do it for me, or to show me how again, so I gathered the courage and did it myself.

I ironed the towels and hems first like she showed me, glad not to have to sit down at the machine straight away, but as I fished the bobbin thread out of the body of the machine or reversed the machine at the end of the fabric to secure the stitches of the first towel, I was surprised myself by how much I really knew. In my teens, I had after refused to sit with my mom at the sewing machine, preferring to be anywhere but home with her, preferring to play drums in my punk band, and run around with my friends, preferring not to have my fingers sewn shut by a machine needle. I guess, since I had seen my mom at her sewing machine so often over a ten- year period before moving away from home and listened to her talk out loud about what she was working on that I had by osmosis drawn some of the knowledge into my own body where it lay dormant but ready for access when needed.

When I finished hemming several tea towels, I called my mom on the phone to tell her what I had done all by myself without her help. I was, at forty-two, finally ready to learn to sew and not afraid of the sewing machine. She was as happy as she was the day I told her I was pregnant ten years before.

Lately, I have found myself going to my sewing machine more often. And when I sew, I get to know better how she sees the world, how it looks from over the top of a sewing machine, the details she sees when she eyes beautiful fabric and imagines how it might look on an apron, the cut of a dress, a delicate lace hem. I see her as I reach up to roll the wheel forward by hand to back the needle up and out of the thread so I can cut it and move onto the next area in need of stitching. I can feel her in my breath when exhale and flick the foot lever down so it will hold the fabric in place as I send the needle through it. I know what it’s like to feel the hum of the sewing machine motor under my hands, the rush of excitement for the moment I can pull the work from the machine and see how it turned out, knowing whether my mom would approve or disapprove, her standards for good work as my guide.

And I know what it feels like to create something tangible with my own hands, to take many parts and pieces and put them together and the ways in which creating in this way is not unlike writing, crafting living documents of our lives.

Our relationship has changed a lot of over the years, but I know my mom has sometimes has a hard time relating to me, and I know she feels I haven’t always seen her the way that she sees herself. She didn’t finish high school and she had me when she was only eighteen. I graduated high school, went to college, traveled, seen places she’s only dreamed of seeing, waited until I was in my thirties to have a child, and I only had one.  Still, mothers want to pass something on and like all mothers, my mom wants to be understood.  And I have always thought I could understand her and why she did the hard things that she did all those years, but maybe she was right. I hadn’t really known her, not in the way she wanted to be known, because I didn’t practice, or worse,  didn’t care to practice the craft, the art form that that defines her, the thing that distinguishes her from others, the thing that she is best at, the thing in which she excels. But I’m beginning to understand it now, how what she does feels, how it works, the time it takes, the patience (something she is not often associated with), and the practice and the talent that it takes to be really, really good. I won’t ever get there, and that’s not my aim, but I do love feeling closer to her for learning to sew, and I know now that’s all she ever wanted.