Founder of The Midlothian Writers’ Workshop, Mel Jones is an extraordinary writer, teacher, and retreat leader. She shares her wisdom and wit online at Mel’s Madness.
I’m thrilled to have her here at The Writerly Life.
The Socratic Use of Irony
Writing and thinking are so often intertwined for me. Both are intertwined with living. They are inseparable entities. Everything I see and hear is fodder for blog posts, essays, even Facebook status updates. Life is ironic. The challenge is seeing it and then translating it into something readers will be interested in, and giving it a moral. It’s the same process whether the writing is academic, personal, or professional. Irony invades and I wonder should I write this story? Is there a moral to it? A lesson? And then I wonder, do stories need the moral spelled out? Do I have to weave that throughout, or do I allow my reader to draw his or her own conclusions in a Socratic sort of way. I always liked Socrates.
In one not so recent Composition class, filled with non-traditional students, I faced such a challenge. Is this a story I should tell? Do I fill in the blanks, or allow the reader, like the other people in the story, to draw conclusions? The class was diverse: a woman welder, a roofer, a couple of musicians, veterans, single parents, you know, people struggling to make their lives better.
On the first night, two students cried: a man in his thirties (the roofer) and a single mom. They were so sure that they would not be able to do this, that they were simply too old to do this, that writing was too hard. I nurtured this class, held hands until my students felt confident enough to hold each other’s hands. They learned to attack research with a gusto I have rarely encountered – they supported each other, fleshing ideas, offering resources their classmates may not know about…
And then there’s Princess.
Yes, you read that right, Princess. She has a semi-normal name, she’s twenty-seven and wants—insists—people call her Princess. I picture a German shepherd I was friends with years ago. Princess didn’t come to the first two classes and thought she should simply be exempt from those class assignments.
Really, Princess? A man cried he was so overwhelmed by the idea of writing every week. He cried in my classroom. Of course, he doesn’t call himself Princess.
Princess arrived late to class in week three (week one for her). She brought her dinner, rumpled bags while I lectured, refused to do group work, and was in and out of the classroom. She cleaned out her handbag, snapped her gum, and cleaned her nails. Despite the fact that it’s a night class she never took her sunglasses off. Finally, halfway through class, Princess decided she was done for the night. So, she did the only practical thing to do: she wrote me a note, walked in front of me while I was lecturing, positioned her note on the podium, and left.
Class stopped and we all looked where Princess had been in a sort of stunned horror—really? The welder made a snide comment about priorities. As Princess sauntered out the door, my first thought was, damn there’s a story in that, because I just couldn’t make this stuff up. During the break, I made notes.
I emailed Princess and told her that she had makeup work to do and she needed to get in touch with me if she wanted to bring her grade up. Because if you haven’t done any of the work, you flunk. I informed her advisor that she was disruptive in my class.
Princess emailed me back, in all caps (that’s just too ugly to reproduce here): U dont git to tell me wat I ciin do. I is 27 and u dont know me at all I is gonna change the world 4 my daughter. I no wat I has to do to be sucessful. I shuld have an A I jus started class.
Right, I wanted to say, I guess you missed the part in your schedule that said this was an English class. And I am an English teacher. I wanted to say, actually, Princess, bless your heart, I do get to tell you what to do. You see, professors are like bosses; they tell people what to do and then dole out pay in the form of grades. And right now, you are getting a zero. If there were a grade lower than that I would give that. If there were a place on the transcript for conduct and effort, I would write a novel about your rudeness and sense of entitlement. Instead, I did some creative writing. I emailed her back a simple list of assignments that she was missing. I explained that attendance had very little to do with assignments; she was still responsible for the work. She had been on my roster from day one. I prided myself on my restraint and scribbled more notes.
Princess sent a note to her advisor, who forwarded me a copy. It said I wasn’t being flexible nor was I trying to understand her situation. She didn’t use nor. I decided that the semester had just gotten much longer. I purchased a small notebook and wrote Princess Journal on the cover.
Princess returned for an encore the next week. She did arrive on time, but sent text messages for ten minutes and ate a four-course meal from some sort of cafeteria-style take out place.
“Who can tell me how to conjugate the verb to be?” I asked. Because the universe revolves around verbs. Not math—even math needs verbs (add these, divide those).
The roofer cringed, but didn’t cry. The welder asked if the answer was X-rated. Princess said she grew up in New York and didn’t need this lesson.
One of the single moms rolled her eyes at Princess and asked me what I meant.
I wrote on the board:
I AM You ARE They ARE
Everyone seemed to understand. They all breathed a sigh of relief. No tears grammar refresher.
“So how do we put it in the past tense?”
I WAS…You was? No. Were?
“Yes,” I responded. “Were.”
Princess said, “So what about where?”
I stared blankly. “What?”
“No, no, it’s were.”
“Whach you know anyway.”
Well, I thought to myself, I am the English teacher; I think you can take my word on word conjugation and prepositions. I didn’t go to school in New York, but, you know, I have three graduate degrees in English. I said, “I have a book in my bag, 501 English Verbs, you can check it if you like.”
“I don’t need no book. It’s where. I’s not stupid.”
The roofer and a veteran mumbled in unison, “That’s debatable.”
The welder responded, “No it’s not.”
I ignored Princess and carried on with my lesson. She munched on her food, looked out through her sunglasses, and muttered a lot.
I gave the class an assignment – a group assignment. But, before I had the chance to say, you must work as a team, Princess sprinted out the door, abandoning her group.
When I found her in the hall I asked, “Where’s your group? Have you worked together? Formed conclusions about how research should work?”
“They be over there! Does I need to show you? You can’t find ’em?”
Grammar aside, I was appalled by her arrogance. I replied, “No, I don’t need you to show me, and I don’t really need the attitude, thank you.”
“Did you hear that?” She grabbed a student walking by. “Who does she think she is disrespectin’ me like that? I gonna file a complaint! Come with me, you be my witness.”
The other student looked confused but followed her anyway. I thought, I’m the Instructor, that’s who I am.
I went on to gather up the rest of my students and complete the class activity. Princess filed her complaint and didn’t return to class. One of my students asked if I had thrown Princess out. The welder said she could take Princess outside and teach her a thing or two, maybe not about English, but about other important life skills. No charge.
All of the veterans offered to help.
When I arrived at school the next morning, one of the tenured professors pulled me aside and told me not to worry about Princess, or her complaint. Princess is enrolled in a technical college, she has flunked Orientation four times—and her goal is to be a Supreme Court justice.
I tried to process it. I had visions of decisions that looked like her emails.
I have written, and rewritten this story a dozen times. I refer to my notes, reflect on what I should say about Princess. And then I set it aside; is there anything I can say about Princess that her words and actions don’t say loudly? Is the irony lost? Each time I conclude, no; Princess’ story stands on its own and doesn’t need my commentary. I just have to be brave enough to accept that. I have to accept that we’re all the roofer, the welder, the single moms, and the veterans. The message of the story spells itself out. We don’t need the irony flagged; well, unless we’re Princess.
I still teach Composition—and still look for ironies to develop into stories that might make Socrates smile. Most of the students from that class have graduated now. Princess dropped my class. She is one more step removed from the halls of justice. And I think that’s an ironic justice worth writing about. Because sometimes the story is just worth telling. Sometimes, the lesson teaches itself.
Mel Jones is a native Bostonian. She grew up on the Irish Riviera — The South Shore. As a child, she spent many hours sitting in trees reading books and writing poems. She had her own newspaper column at fifteen and was determined that she would be the next Shakespeare or Tolkien. She was educated at The College of William and Mary, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Antioch University, Los Angeles. She holds degrees in History, English, Rhetoric, Literature, and Creative Writing (Nonfiction). Yes, she is overeducated.
She has done extensive genealogical research both for her own family tree and professionally. Mel edited a now defunct literary journal, The Sylvan Echo. She’s taught children from kindergarten through college in a variety of public and private settings. She currently teaches College-level Composition. Mel is the founder of The Midlothian Writers’ Workshop. She offers a variety of services for writers, including retreats.
Publications include a book of poetry, Between the Lines (2005), and essays in The William & Mary Gallery, Sherwood Forest, and online at Little Seal and r.k.vr.y. She recently had an epiphany: if she sent her work out more, she would be published more. She’s working on that. She maintains a sometimes snarky blog, Mel’s Madness, which is more Erma Bombeck than William Shakespeare. Mel lives and writes on a small leisure farm west of Richmond, Virginia with her partner, parrots, and progeny.