The Time of Dead Grandmothers

My partner once worked at a college in South Carolina. Her chair was from the Northeast, and when she had first arrived on campus, she was very concerned about fitting into the Southern culture of politeness and manners. When the first student came to her to explain that her grandmother had died, and that she could not make the midterm because of the funeral, this professor contacted the student affairs office, got the student‘shome address, and sent a condolence card to the family.

Guess what? The grandmother wasn’t dead. I bet Thanksgiving was a real hoot for that family, that year.

Ever since, the professor makes a point of sending cards to the families when she hears of a death or severe illness. — Maruice Milieur in a comment responding to the article by Terry Caesar —The Time of Dead Grandmothers (Inside Higher Ed)

That’s brilliant. Just brilliant.

I was taking a break from marking papers and idly Googled to see whether any rhet/comp folks had written about freshman comp papers dealing with the death of grandparents. Students who expect to be praised for writing a moving tribute to a loved one can be shocked when the instructor moves quickly from a brief expression of sympathy to a list of grammar and organization suggestions.

Students who write “I’ll never forget how I felt when I heard the news” are still reeling from the emotion, which feels very present to them; but if they just list the kinds of things they used to do with their grandmother, they are not communicating effectively to a reader who does not already love the person whose life they wish to commemorate. If they make technical errors like describing their own facial expressions as if a TV camera is on their face, forcing the reader to use an external point of view to guess at the emotional state of a first-person limited narrator, then we’re not doing our jobs if we just say “I can tell you miss our grandmother” and give them an A for being a loving grandchild.

We can, and should, do our jobs with tact and kindness. I have read so many “How Much I Miss My Dead Grandparent” or “My Scary Car Crash” or “My Harrowing Illness” or “My Big Game” essays in which students make the exact same mistakes, but there is always a person on the other end of the story, for whom these experiences are powerful and personal, and who has carefully chosen this particular story as the one he or she wants to tell for the personal essay assignment.