The Man With The Red Pen (aka Dad)

I can only imagine how frustrating it must be when your child doesn’t respond to you when you speak to her.  It must be like you’re invisible or don’t exist.  This behavior is common in teenagers, but not so much in three-year olds.  Then imagine having a doctor tell you that your daughter suffers from hearing loss (10% hearing in the left ear, 65% in the right) and makes the recommendation that you send her to a special school.  This is what happened to my parents when they struggled to get  a reaction out of me if they were to call name when I wasn’t looking at them.  Instead of sending me to a special school, they decided to send me to public school just to see how I would do.  My childhood, they determined, would be as normal as possible.

My dad didn’t want me to be limited by my hearing loss.  He envisioned having an out-going, active, gregarious child. What I was was quiet, shy, bookish.  He always encouraged me to go make friends and “be myself”, but being myself was counter-intuitive to his aim: I wanted to grab a book to read quietly in the corner or watch TV.  He wanted me to speak clearly; I have a quiet voice.  He wanted me to foster an interest in sports.  He tried to teach me how to golf.  Fail.  Softball.  Fail.  Enrolled me in gymnastics.  Fail.  Ride a bike.  Fail. I preferred to walk aimlessly by myself (although, I did teach myself how to ride a bike when I was in the fourth grade.  When I finally rode it down the street, Chris, a neighborhood kid, dropped his toys in his yard and screamed, “Amy’s riding a bike!”). For the first 10 years of my life I must have seemed a disappointment, or a conundrum at least.  What would he teach me?  What would I amount to?

Then I had to start writing essays for school.  Here was something he could help me with, and not only that, it was something I needed (unlike a softball to the nose).  When he was younger my dad served as a reporter for his local news paper, and writing was his forte.  When I had an essay due, he would prepare to read it by saying to me, “Go get me the red pen.”  This was akin to saying “Go find a switch in the yard for me to apply to your bottom.”  Like any kid, I had just finished the essay and, really, wasn’t that enough?  Did I really have to look at it again?  Make changes?  Really?

But my dad read away, making marks here and there.  The torture came after he finished, because that meant that I had to think.  He never passed back a paper saying, “Here, just make these changes.”  He went over it with me and carefully explained the rules of subject-verb agreement, pronoun references, and the use of “this”.  He made me focus on the logic of my organization and the clarity of my thoughts.  He made me think about what I wanted to say and how I was saying it. He made me feel responsible for my words.  This was way more valuable to me than swinging a golf club.

Even throughout college he read my essays (after they had been graded by the professors), but I didn’t feel like I had ever graduated from the school of Dad until I went to graduate school.  I showed him my paper about Walt Whitman that had been accepted for presentation at a conference.  He read it, put it down, and remarked, “Wow.  I’ve never written anything like that before.”  That was when I knew I had arrived.

Growing up it took me a while to figure out what I was interested in, but it turned out to be books, history and people.  My first volunteer job was as a Sunday Social Director at a convalescent home and my second volunteer job was as a docent at a historical home museum.  I slowly evolved into the  out-going child my dad envisioned. My hearing never held me back from what I wanted to do; as a matter of fact, it gave me “street-cred” with the old folks when I showed them my hearing aid.  But as always, I had to figure out my passions on my own.

Now that I teach, I put many of my students through the red pen treatment.  Over their groans of agony as I point out their dangling modifiers, I tell them that I was once in their shoes and their mistakes are normal because I had made them myself.  I tell them the story of my dad reading my essays and how much I hated it then, but am so grateful for it now.

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