Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Death of the Dictionary?

When I was in elementary school, I remember learning math facts. 4 + 4 = 8, 3 x 4 = 12, etc. We would have timed tests, 3 minutes for 50 addition or subtraction problems, 5 minutes for multiplication. We would complain about never needing to know this anyway. We could just use a calculator! The teacher smiled knowingly, and said smugly, "When you are older, you won't always have a calculator handy in your pocket to help you out."


Less mathy, but with a similar nostalgia, I recall a set of 1978 World Book Encyclopedias at my house, and how incredibly proud I was to show them off to any visitors. We had ALL of the knowledge, here in our house! I would sit on the floor with the L volume in my lap, looking up lions and Louisiana and leather and Abraham Lincoln. So much to know!

All of that is at our fingertips, now. All of it can be found in seconds.

I had this notion the other day, and no matter how old and curmudgeonly I may sound saying it, I'm going to say it.

I miss encyclopedias. I miss the necessity to go to our local library on a weekly basis. I miss card catalogs and the wonder of stacks and stacks and stacks of books. What did they all contain?

But I get the most panicky about the death of the dictionary. I love words so much. I never look up only ONE word. There is always the page browse, searching for other unknown words. The words that surround the word, the words on the next page. The language of origin and the root word, on which so many other words rely. Words are my friends. Like anecdote and deference and diatribe and ambivalence. I tuck words away in my heart, like escutcheon and flummox and defenestrate (thank you, David, for that gem). On many an occasion, I have just opened the dictionary out of curiosity, to see what new words I might find there.

And there's the thing about digitizing everything. We are losing the collateral or adjacent or auxiliary learning. The learning because you're already there. The expanse of knowledge, by being in a place where there is always more to know. The stuff you learn about, when you're learning about other stuff. 

That's the part that I'm lamenting.

So much of our learning is get in, get what we need, get out. The Internet is efficient! We want to know; we find out. Mid-conversation, we look things up.

Admittedly, I am part of this changing tide. I ask Siri for definitions, now. I look up facts. I get in, get what I need, and get out. But I am looking back to the World Book Encyclopedia on my lap in my room, and I'm so thankful that it was mine. I am looking at my American Heritage dictionary, held together with duct tape on its breaking spine, and thanking it for all the good times. And, if I am truthful, I have a sinking feeling about this move forward.

I can't help but worry that part of our human curiosity is being deadened by the quick access to knowledge any time, any where, in the convenience of our pockets.

The Internet is awesome, in the truest sense of awesome. It's so vast and so filled with amazing things. I am ready to appreciate it. But even as Dorothy left the magical place of Oz to return home, I too must realize my beloved books can't last forever. They can't all come home with me. It's time to say my farewell to my old friends, with whom I've had so many adventures. Goodbye World Book Encyclopedia. Don't cry. You'll warp so dreadfully. Goodbye, library stacks. I'm going to miss the way that you smell and provide hiding places for wonderment and fascination. Goodbye, dictionary. I think I'll miss you most of all.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Inspired Again

When I began my freshman year at Bowie High School in 1992, I had lived in the state of Texas for a total of four days. I walked into school with my older brother at my elbow, and the promise of a new start at a new school.

English class was where I was home, having considered myself a writer since my third grade teacher told me I was. Because of late registration, I couldn't get into an honors class. So, on the first day of freshman year, I found myself standing in the doorway of Mr. Cavallaro's classroom. The population seemed a mix of little mousy kids and second year freshmen. And Mr. Cavallaro... well, I didn't even see that man coming.

Mr. Cavallaro was a 6'2" New York Italian, having arrived from doing 25-years to life at an inner city public high school. By some twist of fate, he wound up in this suburban wealthy neighborhood. He was irritable, salty, and more filled with life than any teacher I had encountered before. He paced the floor like a madman. He would shout and sing and act out words from books, then throw them on the floor in dramatic finality. He wanted to talk about life, and passion, and the god-awful southern hospitality. He shirked the good'o'boy administration of the school. He let students sit on top of their desks, shout out in class, and he would stop a lesson right smack in the middle if something more interesting was brought up. I remember sitting in my desk, in a near constant state of awe, asking myself, "Can a teacher do that?" If this was high school, I was in. Being in Mr. Cavallaro's class felt like being part of a strange dark society, and somehow I had divined the secret knock.

I have had so many amazing teachers and professors, and each has their place in my scholastic heart. But as I walked into a classroom again in January (after a 13 year absence from teaching), I am remembering Mr. Cavallaro with a particular fondness. I'm teaching freshman English.

Looking back, I can see him with adult eyes. He was probably unhappy in Texas; he was a rebel and a disturber of the peace. He barely eked out the required curriculum, if he did any at all. He was annoyed with our suburban middle-class goodness and innocence, from time to time, sorely missing the challenge of his inner-city New York "thugs" (as he affectionately called them). Among my cast of memorable English teachers, most of them were better at teaching English than Cavallaro. They challenged me, graded my essays with thought and encouragement, and even found ways to make the curriculum exciting.

But there is no mistaking that there was a quality of his classroom that cannot be erased with time. We were a part of it. The students helped to form it with our own ideas and thoughts and questions. When the bell rang each day, our spell was broken, and we walked out into our own worlds. We nodded to each other in the hallway, sometimes shaking our heads and smiling about the crazy antics of our teacher. He was something special.

And as I stand at the front of the room with my freshmen sitting quietly in their seats, it's Cavallaro's spirit that rises in me, and not the other sages of my English past. His is the one that says to each student, "You belong here. This is a special place where you are safe, and wonder is encouraged, and the unexpected is a delight."