Wednesday, October 09, 2019

The Perverse Pleasure of More than Small Talk

I watched Tolkien a few weeks ago. It's about J.R.R. Tolkien as a young man and his group of friends at Oxford. They are the most insufferable group of nerds you ever did meet. I liked it and I like how they bond over the things they read and all of their Middle-earth/highbrow passions. Tolkien went on to start another group of buds called the Inklings as a professor at Oxford that included C.S. Lewis. Their friendship was deep and productive and facilitated the writing of two of the most successful fantasy series of all time as well as Lewis's conversion to Christianity.

Tolkien's group of literary thinkers reminds me a little of the group of students I work with in my literacy labs at Project Read. They are the people I spend the most time with—three times a week—reading and talking about ideas. I feel close to them because we have good conversations whereas in most other situations all you get to do is make small talk with people.

I hate small talk. I find it boring and I'm not good at it. You just hardly ever get a chance to get past it. I think I've always been this way, but too many brief and sometimes counterfeit interactions on social media have left me starved for meaningful connections. I also read a book called Lost Connections which argues that everyone feels like this and that's why so many people are anxious and depressed.  So that might have been where I got this idea. At any rate, I'm super nosy. I want to know what you're thinking about every second of the day. Small talk doesn't do it for me. Small talk politely passes the time. I'd rather probe deeply. (Not everyone is game.)

Being a teacher lets me get into people's heads a little and I love it. For example, one of my most perverse pleasures as a college writing professor is responding to my students' rough drafts. I get to see their ideas at kind of a vulnerable stage before they're polished and I get to tell them what I think they should do to make it better. I love it when I write a comment to them—it's like a little note—that something is unclear and then in the next draft they clarify it and add more support and take my suggestions and make it better. It's like I prodded them inside their brain and changed their thinking. Oh, I dig it.

Teaching literacy labs to adult learners affords me some of the same perverse pleasure. Imagine teaching an adult to actually read words that they couldn't make sense of before. Imagine picking the subject matter that will be the only content a person consumes all week. Imagine that your definition of the word "scrawny" will be the only explanation of it that someone will ever be exposed to. Imagine someone asking you earnestly, "Are mermaids true?"

It's a treat. I signed up to help at Project Read late at night after the presidential election was called in 2016. The election results made it clear to me that the world was neither as literate nor as compassionate as I had once believed. Project Read seemed like just the ticket to be the change I wanted to see in the world. I didn't expect to have such meaningful interactions with my students.

They're my friends. They are nice to me and cheer me up. Once we were reading an article about dogs and I got tears in my eyes because my dog had just died after slowly deteriorating on a dog bed in my bedroom for a month. They noticed and asked and I told them and telling them made me feel better. They bring me bottles of diet soda and bags of 7-Eleven chips even though some of them live on a fixed income. 7-Eleven-branded chips are in their own class, did you know? You can get prime rib flavor and I am not kidding when I say that they have after notes of horseradish. We eat, read, and share ideas over bags of chips as if we were a gang of highfalutin Oxford boys.

We just read an adaptation of Washington Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Before that we read an adaptation of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer. Before that we read a biography of Hellen Keller. She had her unseeing eyeballs taken out and replaced with beautiful, blue glass ones. She was quite vain and wanted people with disabilities to look nice at all times. Guess who dubbed her incredible teacher, Annie Sullivan, "the miracle worker"? Mark Twain. They were friends. Like us.

By the way, Tom Sawyer holds up. I was worried about it because of the whole "Injun" Joe bit, but my students understood it and were into it. They took time from work, family, and whatever else they've got going on to sit there with me reading a crudely illustrated children's adaptation of a classic because they want to get better and in doing so have reaffirmed my faith in humanity, the arts, goodness, and trying to be a better person while other circumstances over the last four years have done their worst to invalidate everything I once believed to be true about the people around me.

The other day we were making words with Spill and Spell dice. One of my students beamed like he had just won the game. He had spelled a word: Kauy.

I think he thought the u was a c. I'm technically a literacy specialist and a big part of my job is correcting people when they spell, read, or pronounce things wrong. But I allowed it. I didn't think he even knew my name—let alone how to spell it. Frankly, most people are off by a lot more than one letter.

In fact, just a couple weeks ago at a ward party a person I've known for 12 years said to me, "Hi bishop's wife," because my husband is the bishop. I joked and replied with fake indignation, "I have a name, you know." He didn't know. He actually didn't know my name and had to ask what it was a few minutes later. It's fine and funny and I don't care and I don't know a lot of people's names in my ward so it's not a big deal to me at all. But ma boi at Project Read knows my name and he can almost spell it.

Another time we were studying poetry and I had everyone write name poems. We started with my name and they filled in my letters like this:

Key to heaven and learning
Almost falling from the sky
Clouds can't hide her
You know?

You don't need Tolkien's degree in philology to feel the vibe. 

During our poetry unit I tried to find poems for people to read in their native languages. This is how I discovered the Persian poet Rumi. If I'm being honest, I had seen Rumi quotes around (because he is highly quotable) but I confused him with Raffi. I could have gone my whole life thinking Rumi was Raffi if it weren't for a very dignified man who used to travel back and forth every few months from Iran to the United States to visit his children here in college and attend Project Read to improve his English—a man I have not seen since Trump's travel ban went into effect. We compared the original Rumi with an English translation. Eat your heart out J.R.R Tolkien. Yours is not the only insufferable nerd game in town.

Here are some of Rumi's thoughts on friends:

I love my friends
neither with my heart nor with my mind.

Just in case...
Heart might stop.
Mind can forget.
I love them with my soul.
Soul never stops or forgets.


  1. I love this post so much. You are truly a beacon of goodness in such an awful, crazy time. I love hearing about your experiences with your literacy students. The part about small talk is so affirming. I am terrible at small talk and shallow chit chat. I kind of hate large parties and gatherings. I used to feel so defective about being bad at small talk, but now I am slowly starting to accept this about myself and convince myself that it is just a neutral character trait - like having brown eyes and size 7 feet.
    Thank you for taking the time to write!

    1. I like the idea of thinking of it as a character trait! Thank you for reading this and for writing such a lovely comment.

  2. Wonderful Kacy! You wrote in such a way as to inspire others (me) to want to come and try this Project Read program. What you're doing really matters. You're providing some sanity and safety for others.

    1. Thank you, Nickie. Our conversations are some of my favorites. Thanks for reading this and for making a comment.


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