Riding the South

The blog of Scott and Jenny Morris

Jan. 6, 2016

Fighting the

word famine

By Jenny Morris

Eudora Welty wrote a novel that I keep saying I’m going to read some day. “Losing Battles,” according to the presentation I heard once at the University of Alabama, is, in part, Welty’s commentary on education’s losing battle with the demands of human biology. 

Whether my fellow graduate student’s synopsis was correct or not, whether my memory of 30 years ago holds true, if Welty’s book doesn’t make this point, someone should write one that does. 

I’m starting a new semester this week. One in which I like to think I’ll make inroads on the ignorance my students bring to class with them. But there’s so much ground to cover. 

Education statistics that report students’ lack of reading and math preparedness will never have the gut punch I experience each time I’m asked the meaning of a word like “sympathy.” Or a member of my college classroom will pose a question like, “What is a time zone?” 

Many of my students come with a vocabulary dearth that suggests they have spent their last two decades experiencing a word famine. As language is the basis of shared knowledge, without words they struggle for comprehension of the simplest texts. 

But there’s one language they seem to be speaking rather well, if the number of teenage parents in my classroom is any indication.  

And I remember how unprepared I felt, two days shy of 26 and looking at the newborn in my arms. With a master’s degree, an employed husband and government-provided health care, I felt overwhelmed as I anticipated parenting. 

This semester, like each one before it, in between reading and writing instruction I will try to point my students to self-restraint. I’ll hint that to everything there is a season and suggest that popular culture has sold our youth, and especially our young women, a bill of goods.

In fact, at times, I’ll come out and say it. Because it’s a bill we all pay, one way or another. And if there’s one thing the South doesn’t need more of, it’s poor children born to uneducated single parents. This year, like most, we’ll probably have a bumper crop. But come Thursday, I’ll still show up for the fight.