I was reading a book out on the porch swing after work the other day when I noticed Caroline coming up the sidewalk. I always enjoy Caroline's visits. It is always fun to hear what's going on in that 3rd grade head of hers. On this particular afternoon she was soliciting my insights into the world of spelling and writing. Her Mother had told her that I was a good speller. While we take compliments whenever we can get them, I rather strongly suspect that Caroline's presence before me on that beautiful September day had more to do with her Mom's need to get her out from underfoot rather than any particular respect on her part for my spelling abilities. No matter. Caroline pulled up next to me on the swing and immersed herself in her work. I returned to my book. It wasn't long before she ran across the first stumper about which she applied to me for assistance.
"What does boast mean?" she asked.
" Well, it means to brag." I explained. "It's when someone calls attention to themselves in a bad way."
" But my teacher said that she was gonna brag on me to Mom. Is that bad?"
" No. To brag on somebody is an old Southern way of praising somebody." Bragging is only bad if you are bragging about yourself."
I notice that I pronounced bragging as "braaaaaaging" and praising as "praaaaaising." I don't usually sound like Al Gore when I talk. Further, I noticed that my hands were cupped in the air before my chest as if I am describing 36 DD breasts.
No wonder children tune us out. We must look pretty weird at times like this.
" And boasting is bragging?" she asked.
She put her papers in her lap. She pulled her hair up off the back of her neck. She began batting her eyes as she thrust her non-existent chest into the air.
"Jesus." I thought as I slid away from her. "What the hell is this?"
" Look at my beeeeeeyoooooooteeeeeeful haaayer" she cooed ridiculously. "Don't yoooooooou loooooove my beautiful hair?"
I looked through the bottom of my bifocals as she burlesqued away. Eventually, she dropped her hands back into her lap and her face morphed back to normal.
"Was that boasting?" she dead panned.
" Yes." I said. "Yes it was. Excellent."
She resumed her scribbling. I returned to my reading.
After awhile she began to squirm. Then she started kicking her legs back and forth as she wrote and erased, wrote and erased. Knowing a stressed out writer when I see one, I decided to intervene.
" Something I can help you with?"
She sighed. " The teacher wants us to write sentences using our new spelling words. But she wants us to start each sentence different. My sentences all look the same."
I looked at her sentences.
" They look fine to me." I said. "There's only so many ways to start sentences, especially when you are just learning how. You are stressing too much over this."
"I don't know." she said. "They just don't look right." By this point she was holding the page out in front of her at arm's length as if that would induce the muse of 9 year old writers to come down from on high to fix her copy.
"Listen." I said. "Once upon a time there was a famous writer who lived in Chicago. His name was Nelson Algren. He wrote lots of books. And he started lots of his sentences the same way you do. Let me show you."
And with that, I opened the first pages of "A Walk on the Wild Side" that was placed by my side. I held it up where she could see it.
" Look. There's a sentence that starts with the word 'he.' That one starts with 'she.' This one starts with 'that.' See? Just like you." And with that, I closed the book before she could actually read any of it.
That actually seemed to work if the sudden marked decrease in squirming was any indication. In fact, after a few more scribbles, she put her sentences away and turned to her math assignment. Since I don't do math, I was home free.
What Caroline didn't know about the "famous writer" I introduced her to that day won't hurt her. Caroline didn't know that Nelson Algren was one of the old tough guy "Chicagah" writers who cut his teeth working for the tabloids. She didn't need to know that he was described as a "proletarian" writer. Which is just a snooty way of saying "communist." She didn't need to know that he found nobility in bums, hookers, grifters, drunks and insane preachers. She didn't need to be acquainted with examples of his hard boiled prose style such as this gem:
" Watch out for the inclination to trust, particularly toward women. It leads to giving. Look out for that one, it's the worst of a bad lot."
" Watch out for flowers, watch out for trust, watch out for women, watch out for giving. In short, don't give flowers to a woman you trust."
Or this one either, which is possibly one of the most profoundly sad descriptions of a character I have ever read:
"Dove Linkhorn could not remember a time, a place nor a single person, house cat or hound dog that had sought his affection."
Or consider this description of 1930s America that leads off Chapter Two of "A Walk on the Wild Side":
" The Ladder of Success had been inverted, the top was the bottom and the bottom was the top. Leaders of men still sporting gold watches were lugging baby photographs door to door with their soles flapping. Physicians were out selling skin lighteners and ship captains queued in hope of a cabin boy's mop and pail.
Offices of great fire insurance companies went up in smoke, which seemed no more than just. When the fire department-long unpaid-cleared off, little remained but scorched files, swivel chairs on which no one would ever swivel again, lovely heaps of frosted glass and all that mahogany.
All that mahogany that hadn't helped anybody but brokers after all. Then the brokers began jumping off rooftops with no greater consideration for those passing below than they'd had when their luck was running. Emporers of industry snatched all the loose cash on which they could lay hand and made one fast last run. Lawyers sued one another just to keep in practice."
She didn't need to know that Ernest Hemingway once said of him, "Mr. Algren, boy, you are good." She didn't need to know that Nelson Algren's mugshot graces the top of this page.
All Caroline needed to know was that, once upon a time, there was a famous writer named Nelson Algren and that he wrote a lot of books and that many of his sentences started just like hers. And that was sufficient to put a smile on her face.
A friend of mine used to say, "When the student is ready, the teacher appears." It is hardly Caroline's fault that when this particular tutor appeared he was drinking gin and reading a book that at one time was banned by the self-righteous morons that specialize in that sort of thing. Still and all, it was a "teachable moment" and I just used the tools that I had at my disposal. Such as they were.
I bet Nelson Algren would find this hilarious. Come to think of it, maybe he wouldn't.