Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Letters to the Editor

In my prior life, before marriage and children, I lived in or extremely close to real cities – Washington, DC, Chicago, Vienna, and I was used to their newspapers. I was a teenager during the Watergate years, and my mother worked for the Washington Post under Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham. She wasn’t a reporter; she was support staff, but she remembers all of them, including Woodward and Bernstein, during that very exciting period of time in the newspaper industry. Since I lived with her, I got dribs and drabs of information that she would talk about, and, really, as a teenager I wasn’t nearly as interested in it as I would be now.

We lived in Arlington, VA, then, later in Alexandria, in the Old Town section. It was suburban, bordering on urban, with lots of traffic, public transportation, and incredibly good newspapers. Everyone got the Post. There wasn’t even a need to call it the Washington Post. Every time someone mentioned the Post, my imagination gilded it with gold edging on the letters, and I’d feel a sense of excitement and interest. Even in elementary and junior high school, we were expected to be familiar with the newspaper and had to use it for some assignments.

When I moved to Chicago, there were two good newspapers, the Trib and the Sun-Times. I was still a teenager, and the need to read the newspaper for schoolwork was considerably less, but I still read sections out of habit. Not a bad habit, I suppose, although it lead to tsking and head-shaking, laughter, and disgust at politicians and other silly people. It was also a source of material to open discussions with Dad and Ellen, and to argue with the evening TV news. We’d even check the paper on facts, then point our fingers at the TV, tsking some more.

In my very small town, we also have a paper. It’s a lot different from the Post, the Trib, or the Sun-Times. We have classified ads for livestock and truck drivers, farm property and fireplace wood by the cord. Our little paper, the Herald News, has two sections, Sports (and classifieds) and Other. On Fridays, it has a section called “Detours” which is where they let young people, some of whom may have studied Journalism, write articles for the paper. As I get older, I find myself less and less interested in what video or computer game may be the new “bomb”, or which teen angst book is currently popular. I have my doubts about their book review teams, anyway, as it seems they’ve never read a book they don’t like.

The Sports section features updates on all the local high school teams for 5 or 6 small cities around us on a regular basis, with big, color pictures of sweating, harried teens in motion. It reports on a few other teams when “our” teams play against them, and it uses typical warlike, aggressive lingo, i.e. “Warriors Stomp Cats,” and “Dynamic Diamonds Crush Lady Moose”. The Sports section also covers Nascar racing and some professional baseball from time to time.

Our “Other” section probably calls itself the “news” section. I don’t. There just isn’t that much news going on around here. It has comics, the agony aunt column, a crossword puzzle, a Sudoku puzzle, the police report, obits, information on marriages, divorces, births, a social event calendar, and features. For a couple of years, the features were scraping the bottom of the barrel, considering they even put my knitting group, which at the time had all of three people in it, on the front page with a 4 X 6 color picture of us knitting. Possibly not their most exciting edition.

There’s also one full page of OpEd stuff. There’s usually a syndicated column on an issue of political or national importance, there might be a column from another paper in the state on a state issue, and one column is written by staff reporters, on a rotating basis, which leads to some screamingly funny differences in quality, topic, and style. One was so heinously bad that I wrote a scathing reply to the sports reporter who dunned the nerds in his college as brownnosers. My letter was a big hit. And that probably clearly exemplifies the biggest difference between, say, the Washington Post and the local Herald News – letters to the editor.

Big city papers have letters written to the editor by college professors, titans of industry, learned individuals from all walks of life, and an occasional very erudite ordinary person. Small town papers have letters written by annoyed people and people who want money. They have a much wider range of education and writing skills, and they very seldom address national or state issues with any coherence or memorably good phraseology. We get a lot of letters on the doltishness of school boards, written by annoyed people whose kids didn’t make the team, or who think the board is spending money fecklessly, or who are board members themselves and want to make a point separate from the rest of the board. We get letters from old-timers driven to take up pen and paper by the egregious behavior of the county board over funding the nursing home, or by charity directors stumping for yet another wad of my cash.

Then there are the rest of the letters, which really cannot be categorized, and which afford me the greatest human entertainment of my day. There are letters dunning the charity basketball coordinators for unfair refereeing, using any number of tenses, indignant from tip to toe, threatening, oh, woe, to reduce the crowd by one next year. Letters which correct errors in reportage in the paper are invariably smoking with the writer’s rage over having been misquoted, misrepresented, or misunderstood. Sometimes they use complete sentences.

Thank you notes, cautiously written to a single person or reporter, or to a small group of people always make the Letters column, and they are sweet, or bittersweet, or just thought provoking. There are letters written by people who are desperately trying to support a point on an issue greater than their skill in writing; a recent one addressed the topic of “Wal-Mart supporting the homosexual agenda.” This particular pastor of a tiny church intends to protest with a small band of people with nothing more pressing to do, on the day after Thanksgiving, handing out pamphlets, undoubtedly larded with misspellings and inaccuracies, while standing on Wal-Mart property. His letter generated a few of my favorites – letters poking fun at damned near anything.

I like those letters. They show a sense of perspective that I generally agree with, about people taking themselves too seriously, about being a little more compassionate towards our fellow citizens and their foibles and mistakes and attempts to do good that go wrong somehow, and they are usually pretty well written. I write some like this myself. Sometimes I even send them in. Just for kicks, here’s the one on the brown-nosing nerds that generated several hilarious, supportive phone calls to my home. As a nerd myself and proud mother of nerds, I had a position, and I was annoyed, which qualified me right off. Ahem…

Dear Editor,

“My kid beat up your honor student.” I was reminded of this particularly nasty bumper sticker last week when reading Mr. Johnson’s epistle on the evils of education. Mr. Johnson stated that he is finishing his four year undergraduate degree in five years, after enduring endless torturous hours of confinement in tiny cages with his hapless, lackwitted, uninspired, waste-of-hair cohort, all of whom have been bored into drooling comas by fifty-something professors droning ceaselessly about nothing in particular. He hopes his Bachelor’s degree in Attendance (for I can find no other indication of specialization or skill in his writing) will land him a big job and big bucks.

I do wish him the very best of luck. He’s going to need it. I certainly hope he doesn’t continue to promote himself as a scholar because he isn’t one. Scholars enthusiastically study their topics of interest for years, learning their material deeply and comprehensively, something Mr. Johnson has, by his own account, been assiduously avoiding at all costs. I do wonder what the administrators and professors of L**** University would think of Mr. Johnson’s essay. Probably not much; I’m sure they’ve heard it all before, most likely with the same lack of creativity or zest.

Mr. Johnson, instead of finding a major which sparks his interest and attention, prefers to hamfistedly lump smart, enthusiastic, engaged students into one dismissive category, which he and others of the species Homo bardus stolidus predictably call “nerds… brown nosing for A’s.” It has apparently never crossed his sports-addled brain that many, many people actually like to learn new things. They like to find out new information, techniques and methods, and to develop skills in order to accomplish their own goals. That their mastery of the subject matter is recognized in academia by good grades is generally secondary. They are, in fact, pursuing their own interests with little or no regard to Mr. Johnson or his posse. I hope Mr. Johnson learns that envy is a very unappetizing trait, and that insecurity dressed as boredom is even less appealing.

It seems remarkably hypocritical for Mr. Johnson to have lauded the behavior of those who try to achieve their personal bests in sports in his previous articles, yet in this particular essay he denigrates those who do so in the classroom or other academic settings, calling them “brownnosers” and “nerds”. Perhaps he has yet to learn the definitions of the words, “extrapolation,” “epiphany” or “objectivity.” He does appear to exemplify, perhaps unintentionally, undiluted “egregious lack of insight”.

Nonetheless, I would like to thank Mr. Johnson for his opinion piece. He has made it abundantly clear why the US ranks in the bottom one-fourth of developed nations in both mathematics and science, as reported by the TIMSS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study) and the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) report. He has also implicitly demonstrated why recent NEAP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) reports indicate that only 32% of Illinois students score at “proficient” or “advanced” levels in reading and a mere 24% of all students nationally score at or above “proficient” in writing. Finally, I’d like to thank him for helping me understand why 70% of community college freshmen and 38% of four-year college students require remediation at an annual national cost of over $1.4 billion. It’s always nice to have new data, anecdotal or incidental as it may be.

Oh, in case Mr. Johnson was wondering, nerds like summer break, too; they are not forced to sit small classrooms in polite silence while their time is wasted by pointless, inattentive questions or comments posed by posturing, puerile seatwarmers.


Anonymous said...

I'm happily surprised and pleased that that letter brought you admiring (and agreeing) calls and compliments. It was a beaut! It's pitiful to contemplate the fact that so many sports-addled twerps are allowed to go blithely through life believing that their way is the right way 'cause they're not "brown nosing" anyone (at least not for grades). Since they tend to gather with their own kind, that thinking is reinforced. It's just possible that you "un-reinforced it" for at least one of them, and maybe more than one. Good going, Joan!

Diana B said...

What a hoot! I am from the DC area originally and once actually had a letter printed in the Post. Now I can't even remember what got me so riled up, but it must have been something egregious. Love your letter but I'm betting the kid you wrote it about doesn't have a clue about what you meant. Diana