I admit it. Once in a while, when no one is looking, I leaf through the archives of “Just the Clax.” After 14 years and over 200 columns, there are a lot of leaves to see. Yesterday I came across an entry from April 2008 titled “These Sentences Should be Sentenced.”
It was a compilation of bloopers from student essays collected over my first five years teaching at Harding. These were not garden-variety errors of mangled phrasing and creative punctuation. No, they were spectacular goofs — sentences that go beyond the ordinary into the realm of the delightful. These sentences get put into a file — anonymously — to be savored and cherished later. Every writing teacher has one.
So that you can enjoy the nostalgia with me, here is one paragraph from that column:
Under the category of ‘good-to-know’: One student wrote that ‘the most serious problem with a baby is that improper treatment could lead to death, and this is irreversible.’ Or, ‘Our backyard was, of course, behind the house.’ More informative still: ‘Near the army base in the Philippines, there are 55,000 prostitutes, which could cause adultery.’ One student, in a paper about media depictions of sexuality, informed me that ‘Sex isn’t as common as it used to be.’
It may give you satisfaction to know that I found two typos of my own in that column.
Eleven years have passed, and I’ve graded over 6,000 essays since then. I think it’s time to take another peek into the “Bad Sentences” file.
History is not easy to write about. One student lamented that in the Civil War, “many unnecessary lives were lost.” Another pointed out that “the people who owned slaves are all dead by now, and if not, they are close.” Did you know that the sinking of the Titanic killed “over 1,522 people”? Even recent history is hard to process. “Overall,” lamented one student, “the recession did more harm than good.”
Controversial issues often produce controversial sentences. An essay on free college complained that universities were charging “absorbent tuition.” I also learned that while athletes are role models, they “should not be held to a higher standard than humans.”
Essays about the Harding rules are enlightening. Years before the new policy on shorts, one student vented: “If I wasn’t thinking about how hot I am or how constricting my pants are, I might be able to listen more in class.” Another young lady admitted the wisdom of not having co-ed dorms: “I never knew that when you’re alone with a person of the opposite sex that your mind can get clouded, and sometimes it’s hard to stay focused on the things of God and not on the things of man.” One summed up his feelings on visitation this way: “Even Batman wanted to see Lois Lane once in a while.”
Occasionally, mistakes actually reveal truth: “Howard Stern was dropped by Clear Channel Entertainment because he broke their zero-tolerance policy of decency.”
And then there is spelling — from the student who described King Kong as “a huge, ferocious orange” to the person who felt that banning texting in the car would prevent “wreckless driving.” One future parent was so worried that “America thrives on sex” that she said, “I will not allow my children to watch movies without my illicit permission.” I even learned that one expert is a “contributor to ‘Time’ magazine and regularly writhes for ‘The New York Times.’”
My British literature students sometimes complain that “translating Shakespeare into English is not easy.” One wasn’t sure if the 800-year-old poem “Beowulf” should be classified as an epic but decided that “only time will tell.” Sometimes, a writer just needs to reach the five-page limit: “Up to this point and throughout the years ahead, these two literary works will always be two of the greatest literary works ever in the history of literary works.”
More in the good-to-know category: “The simple fact is, and this cannot be repeated enough, cannibalism is taboo.” In an essay complaining about cafeteria food, a student lamented that “the vegetables are so dried up that there is no more moisture in them.” Or this: “We have all been children at some point, usually near the beginning of our lives.”
How about this one? “Being humble just makes you feel good about yourself and like you are above other people.”
Bible literacy is alive and well. One student discussed “the towel of Babel” — a lesser-known artifact than the Shroud of Turin. Another told me that “the worst fake Christians of all were the Pharisees.” I also learned that as time went on, “Eucharism was no longer practiced, but the church continued with communion.”
Not all the travesties in the file come from student essays. I attended a wedding a few years ago at which the brother of the bride intended to toast his sister by saying, “She’s one in a million.” What came out was, “She’s a dime a dozen.” Plus, I kept one campuswide email that apologized for broken air conditioners and asked everyone to “bare” with us.
The day will come when I am found dead on the floor of my office, and an autopsy will reveal pronouns as the cause of death: “Technology and social media are being used as a way to make ourselves feel good about themselves.” But at least one student wrote this on an evaluation: “I am thankful that I took an English course, which helped me so much in my writting.” Which was not nearly so good as the speech pathology class evaluation where a student wrote, “To learn anatomy, I really need hands-on instruction.”