the grammar of suffering war
To me, Alexandra Teague's "Adjectives of Order" (below) speaks powerfully to the problem with formal education when forms are fundamentally unresponsive to human experiences, especially those we undergo rather than originate. The poem shows a "student's" schooling in English as an education in the ruthless impersonality of the way grammar is conceived. It also shows how the situation of formal education erects bizarre barriers between "student" and "teacher" -- in quotes because the student is, among other things, also a veteran and former prisoner of war, a speaker of a language or languages other than English, and a person working to make sense of his experience through language; the teacher we don't learn much about, but she is clearly also a learner in this case. I would welcome others' thoughts about the poem, including about its resonances with questions about the purpose and impact (actual and aspirational) of formal education, schooled learning.
Adjectives of Order
by Alexandra Teague (Mortal Geographies, Persea Books, 2010)
That summer, she had a student who was obsessed
with the order of adjectives. A soldier in the South
Vietnamese army, he had been taken prisoner when
Saigon fell. He wanted to know why the order
could not be altered. The sweltering city streets shook
with rockets and helicopters. The city sweltering
streets. On the dusty brown field of the chalkboard,
she wrote: The mother took warm homemade bread
from the oven. City is essential to streets as homemade
is essential to bread . He copied this down, but
he wanted to know if his brothers were lost before
older, if he worked security at a twenty-story modern
downtown bank or downtown twenty-story modern.
When he first arrived, he did not know enough English
to order a sandwich. He asked her to explain each part
of Lovely big rectangular old red English Catholic
leather Bible. Evaluation before size. Age before color.
Nationality before religion. Time before length. Adding
and, one could determine if two adjectives were equal.
After Saigon fell, he had survived nine long years
of torture. Nine and long. He knew no other way to say this.