The Irascible ProfessorSM


Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"In my day we didn't have self-esteem, we had self-respect, and no more of it than we had earned.".... ...Jane Haddam.
 

Commentary of the Day - June 1, 2007: Purple Prose.  Guest commentary by Susanne Shaphren.


I'd planned on being away from my desk for less than an hour.  I needed to stop at the post office to be sure I'd properly decoded the anything but simple rate hike and placed the appropriate postage on a stack of manuscripts.  Surely, it wouldn't take five minutes to buy a purple pen.  If everything went smoothly, I'd treat myself to a quick browse through my favorite bookstore.

After the fourth store, I wondered if everybody on the planet had suddenly decided to join me in using purple glitter ink on custom purple checks to thwart identity theft.

When I finally found the purple pens, I scooped up a few extra and hurried to check out. The clerk's hair was a virtual rainbow of colors including blue and purple.  She nodded sympathetically when I explained how hard I'd had to hunt for purple pens and opened her mouth to share some great wisdom about my problem.  Unfortunately, her pierced tongue turned her explanation of the sudden scarcity of my favorite pens into gibberish.

When I finished the day's work and finally got around to reading the morning paper, I solved the mystery.  A small article reported a serious shortage of purple pens since teachers changed the color of choice for correcting papers from red to purple.  The most eminent experts determined that red was too threatening, too critical, too negative.  They mandated a kinder, more gentle color.

I couldn't help wondering if these might possibly be the same "experts" who insisted students' delicate creative souls would be permanently damaged by being forced to follow too many rigid rules about spelling, punctuation, and grammar.  Just thinking about the "free writing" samples I've seen is enough to make me cringe.  Maybe this new theory represents a step forward.  At least, the pendulum has swung toward making it acceptable to correct young writers again.  So long as it's done with the appropriate color.

In this new kinder gentler world of correction, surely no aspiring writer will ever suffer the horrible fate I did so many years ago.  I was shaking like the proverbial leaf when the teacher forced me to stand in the front of an advanced high school English class and apologize for the unforgivable sin described in bold red letters slashed across my essay.  It was painful enough to have to read the words.  I really didn't need to be humiliated by having him repeat them loudly enough to wake the dead.

"You have insulted every student in this class as well as your teacher by daring to try to pass off your fabricated word, "pyrotechnic", as legitimate!!!"

Decades after it happened, the memories of the incident are every bit as vivid as the teacher's red ink.

Even the boys sitting in the back of the class, the boys who usually played chess to avoid falling asleep, paid attention to the teacher that day.  Barely contained laughter and contorted expressions made it abundantly clear our not so esteemed instructor was the only one in the room who didn't know the meaning of the word and how to use it in a sentence.  As smart as we were, none of us knew how "The Walrus" managed to graduate from college with a major in audio visual arts or how that unique degree qualified him to teach an advanced English class.

"Where did you get the spelling of this word?" the community weekly editor bellowed as she threw the copy paper across the room.

I picked up the wounded white sheet, bleeding crimson around the targeted letters.

"From the dictionary where I always get the spelling of words I don't know."

"I don't care how the dictionary spells it.  WE don't spell it that way!"

Early in my free-lance career, I died just a bit every time an editor "improved" my work by changing "peace of mind" to "piece of mind" when the former was correct.  I crossed my fingers every time a manuscript started that perilous journey from submission to publication and prayed that dangerous red pen would leave no noticeable scars.

I've always used a rainbow of pens to edit drafts.  Tranquil Blue.  County Fair Cotton.  Candy Pink.  Spring New Beginning Green.  I reached for Regal Purple long before it became the "in" color.  Yes, I often used the dreaded Blood Red.  I never discriminated.

Just like people, all pens were created to be equal.  Thoughtful commentary and constructive criticism come in all colors.

Pens are weapons only in the hands of ignorant or cruel people.  Black, red, or purple . . . ink of any color . . . doesn't mortally wound the sensitive souls of students and aspiring writers.  Pens don't kill creativity.  Thoughtless teachers and editors do!

2007, Susanne Shaphren.
_________________________________________________
Susanne Shaphren is a freelance writer from Arizona who publishes both fiction and non-fiction.  She is the daughter of a teacher.

The IP comments:  The IP has long held a view similar to Susanne's on the "red pen issue".

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