Students & Random Ideas: What I’ll Miss

As the school year draws to a close I’ll miss not only the students but also Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Robert Burns’s “tim’rous beastie,” and the opportunity to see science jokes. For me, one of the greatest pleasures of substituting is the exposure to random new ideas and renewed acquaintance with old ones.


With a background in journalism, I often sub in literature classes. For the past two years I’ve come across The Canterbury Talesby Geoffrey Chaucer. Most notably, I’ve developed an appreciation for the lengthy prologue to and tale of the Wife of Bath. Married multiple times, she had strong ideas about the role of women at the end of the 14thCentury.

By the 19thCentury, a somewhat independent female protagonist appeared in a story authored by a woman. In “The Story of An Hour,” originally published in Vogue, Louisiana-based author Kate Chopin introduced her main character this way: “Knowing Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death.”

Mrs. Mallard’s reaction to the news, however, was quite different from that anticipated. While her supporters were worried that she would be overcome by grief at the death of her husband, she happily came to terms with her vision of a future free from him. The heart trouble did get the best of her, but–spoiler alert–only after she learned that the reports of her husband’s death were mistaken and he was very much alive.

In the same class, I came across a 1904 short story written by Willa Cather, whom I’ve known best as the author of Death Comes for the Archbishop. Despite multiple trips to New Mexico, which is the setting of the novel, the book sat on my shelf for years and I never read it. After reading Cather’s “A Wagner Matinee,” the longer work is back on my reading list, especially since I realized one of its main characters is based on Bishop Joseph Machebeuf, the namesake of one of “my” schools.

A theology class inspired me to finally reach for Man’s Search for Meaning, another book that had sat on my shelf for years. In it, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl tells about his experiences, observations and insights as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps. It is similar in many ways to Nightby Elie Wiesel, which I read with one of my son’s high school classes several years back. Nightapparently remains popular, as I came across it in another classroom.

In one class the students and I read aloud an imagined conversation with a “wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie” in “To A Mouse, on Turning up in her Nest with a Plough” by Scottish poet Robert Burns. The poem was presented as a prelude to studying Of Mice and Menby John Steinbeck, which reminded me of other Steinbeck books I’ve read, most notably East of Edenand Travels with Charley. On the day of the Colorado Rockies baseball team season opener, students and I read aloud “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Thayer.

Most contemporary writing I’ve encountered has consisted of articles from periodicals. In one, the author reported on working with a coach to get control of his smartphone use. “Unlike alcohol or opioids, phones aren’t an addictive substance so much as a species-level environmental shock,” wrote New York Timestech journalist Kevin Roose. After 30 days, he had reduced screen time on his phone from five to just over one hour a day and  he was picking up the device 20 times daily instead of 100. Another series of writings presented a range of views on the value of a college education. 

And Other Subjects

I was glad to learn that I can figure out simple algebra word problems without having to refer to a text. But generally I’m amazed by the level of learning in math classes. I didn’t take calculus until I was in college, but some of today’s students seem to master it in high school. 

Many chemistry students obviously are learning about mols or moles, which, as I just learned, are standard units for measuring large quantities of tiny entities – like atoms, molecules or other particles. 

But it’s not all serious in science class. I saw a greeting card that asked on the front, “Do you want to hear a really funny science joke?” The inside said, “You would, nerd.” In the same class, I read, “I was in class and told a chemistry joke. There was no reaction.”

If you need an editor for something you’ve written, I’d love to know about your project. I’m interested in a wide range of topics. 

My guest editor for this post was Vicky Tangi, who teaches English as a Second Language to adults and whose writing has been appeared in Louisiana Literature, the Journal of College WritingThe Advocateand numerous literary anthologies.