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Dr. Christopher Chung-Wee
English Professor

B.A. (University of Toronto)
Dip. Ed. (University of the West Indies)
M.A. (Brigham Young University)
Ph.D. (Indiana University of PA)

Phone: 661-763-7820
Office: T12B
Office Hours: Monday 9:00-10:00 a.m.
Tuesday 5:30-6:30 p.m.
Wednesday 9:00-10:00 a.m.
Friday 9:00-10:00 a.m. 2:00-3:00 p.m.
Email: cchung@taftcollege.edu 

Welcome to my site. Please browse at your leisure; you may find some of the information here useful if you are one of my students. If you are not, enter at your own risk.

I have been known to teach occasionally, mostly English, sometimes the deadly art of verbal irony. I like to slay the English language with satirical swipes.

From time to time my students and I talk about the intricacies of grammar and mechanics as we explore the wonderful world of writing. At other times we may discuss the purpose of life in our stranger than fiction literature class.

But in the end we all arrive at the same conclusion--alas, the semester is over, the class is done, if not overdone, and we must move on or off the stage and proceed with our lives.


Brief Bio

tropical islandNaturally, people want to know where I'm from and what I'm doing here. After all, how did this Caribbean-born South American-raised ethnic Chinese make his way to the United States and end up in the San Joaquin Valley teaching English at Taft College? Well, I remember paying $20 for a loaf of bread in Georgetown, Guyana...but that's another story. I also remember the tropical paradise of Barbados...but that's a lifetime away. I remember trudging through the snow in bitterly cold Scarborough, where I studied French at the University of Toronto...and, by contrast, earning teaching certification in sun-drenched Barbados at the University of the West Indies. What a difference it was in Provo, Utah, in the midst of Mormonland at Brigham Young University, spending two years studying Comparative Literature for my master's and swearing never to open another book of literary theory. But the call of English was too insistent to resist, and I found myself at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, opening more books crammed with literary theory. With course work and exams under my belt, I returned yet again to teaching English at a high school while I continued working on my doctoral dissertation. After much ado I received my doctoral degree in May of 2003. In my fourteenth year of teaching English, I thought it was time to move on to college teaching, long an ambition of mine. I remember the drive from Bakersfield airport to Taft to attend my interview, and then the city of Taft. Small. Rural. Isolated. Perfect. I liked small, rural, isolated towns. And Bakersfield is close, LA a matter of two hours away. And here I am, with the best job I've ever had, and loving it.


Random Remarks - January 27, 2006

We are in the midst of moving at Taft College. Read more...

February 1, 2006

Im impressed with what Taft College has to offer. Read more...

A Room of My Own - February 10, 2006

Ive always wanted a room of my own, and now I have one. Read more...

The Look Alike - February 14, 2006

It seems we look alikethat is, Henry and I.  Read more...

English: More or Less - March 24, 2006

Heres a thought: We all have a perfect knowledge of English but are imperfect when we have to communicate it in formal situations.  Read more...

Of What Use is Poetry? - April 18, 2006

There they sit, biceps bulging.  Pleasant young men, every one of them.  Read more...

Behind the Bamboo Curtain - May 22, 2006

It was the summer of 1973 and for the first time I was surrounded by people who looked like me.  Read more...

Teachers We Remember - June 12, 2006

We remember the teachers who were passionate about their teaching and our learning. Read more...

The Pleasures of Punctuation - July 3, 2006

They are so small they seem insignificant.  Read more...

A Jury of Her Peers - July 31, 2006

I have a story to tell you. Its about a man and a woman. Read more...

Too Old Too Young - August 4, 2006

I suppose it had to happen sometime. Ive been invited to join the AARP Read more...

The Whole Tooth and Nothing but the Tooth - September 22, 2006

I was 13 years old and terrified. Gripping the arms of the dentists chair  Read more...

Success is Access

As you begin the new semester at Taft College, you know what you have to do to succeed in your classes Read more...

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Random Remarks - January 27, 2006

We are in the midst of moving at Taft College. For the first time since I started teaching here, Ive had to walk across campus to reach my classes. Its not a big deal, just a minor adjustment to a change that prefaces bigger changes to come as Taft College undergoes a major renovation. Its exciting to contemplate what the college will look like down the road in about 20 years. In no small part, I think, the transformation of Taft College will help reenergize the town of Taft.

This semester I feel recharged. My family and I have recently returned from a vacation to Barbados, where family and friends reside. Talk about congestion: the traffic there is horrendous, but at the same time a witness to the prosperity of the island. Only 14 by 21 miles in area, Barbados hosts 260, 000 people and is one of the most densely populated places on earth. Having lived there for about 7 years from 1984 to 1991, I was interested in the changes the island has recently experienced. I noted above all new buildings and construction, as well as the maddening traffic which stuttered the roads at any time of the day. But this tiny island is doing well for itself, with increased tourism and emphasis on customer service.

Its been a good beginning to the semester. Ive met with my students, always a refreshing meeting as we start our 16-week journey into the intricacies of the English language. Despite my insistence that I would not do an overload, I relented and am offering a new Engl 1A class to begin February 6th on Mondays and Wednesdays at 2:00 p.m. Well see how it goes. It wont be a popular time, but it should fit the needs of those students who, for example, might prefer a face-to-face class than an online class or who simply want to make a late start to the semester.

Is there spring in the air already? Brilliant sunshine, an azure sky, moderate temperaturessurely spring, the season of rebirth, is just round the corner.

February 1, 2006

Im impressed with what Taft College has to offer. Of course, Im biased because I work here, and its in my interest to maintain a positive attitude and to appreciate what goes on at this college. But seriously, the administration is making every effort to provide the best experience it can for our students. You might have heard about the gas vouchers available for students who live more than 5 miles from campus. This is part of a concerted effort to recruit students from out of town, especially those who live in Bakersfield. The rationale is that, in addition to excellent instruction, rental books, and a friendly campus, those students will be given another incentive to come here. Already, I have out-of-town students who have elected to attend Taft College for several reasons, including referrals from friends to take a particular teacher and the personal and personable welcome theyve had in the Counseling Center.

The latest effort to provide a quality experience for our students is the opening of the Student Union building. When I visited there this week I was delighted to see the range of activitiestwo table tennis tables, foosball, air hockey, two pool tables, darts, checkers, chess, computers, a big-screen TV in the lounge area, all accompanied by a big welcoming smile from the young lady at the front desk. This facility gives students what they want: something fun to do in their spare time. Its an excellent addition to what Taft College offers its students, and I really hope they take full advantage of it.

As an instructor, I am mostly concerned with the academic instruction my students receive, but I am also aware of what students want and expect from their out-of-class time in college. When they hear good things about Taft College, whether about instructors or small class sizes or how well they are treated by support staff, they will more likely make the choice to come here. Now we can add one more attraction which underlines President Roe Darnells motto: Taft College is a place where it is a joy to learn and work.

A Room of My Own - February 10, 2006

Ive always wanted a room of my own, and now I have one. This room is special to me because its my very own. I can decorate it any way I want, I can survey it slowly and leisurely, savoring my privacy, and I can just sit and think.

Im referring to my office, that small space with a nook where my desk with a computer, printer, telephone, and, most important of all, pictures of my wife and little one, reside. Occasionally I can rearrange the knick-knacks on my desk, smiling to myself, knowing that as I do so I will rearrange them later.

It isnt that I minded sharing my space with fellow faculty. But having spent 14 years in high school teaching, during which time my "office" was my classroom, and having spent the last four and a half years with two colleagues, its a welcome change to have my own space, a room I can call my very own.

Its important, I understand, for people to have space around them. We all occupy a private space, a bubble, call it territory, which is personal and protected. The extent to which we allow other people into that space depends on our relationship with them. Obviously, the closer the relationship, the smaller the bubble.

I think its like that with my office. When I maintain my office hours, I leave the door open. Its a sign that Im open for business, as it were. Anyone who wants to see me can enter my space. But now when I want to be on my own, to have time to think, reflect, and compose, I can close the door to protect my space. In other words, its time for me.

So here I am ensconced in my office at Taft College, which is going to be extensively remodeled. As a result, and in preparation for the massive construction that will take place on campus, many of us have been assigned new offices. I regret the disappearance of my previous office right next door to my classroom, but I am more than compensated by a room of my own.

Virginia Woolf would have completely understood. My new office represents the freedom to let my mind wander at will, to pore over a poem, study a unit of grammar, peruse a students paperall removed from the outside world. In her famous book A Room of Ones Own (1929), Virginia Woolf aptly wrote "There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of the mind."

The Look Alike - February 14, 2006

It seems we look alikethat is, Henry and I.

Henry is Henry Yong, Vice President of Instruction at Taft College.  Me?  Im a teacher at Taft College.  We work in the same place, but there I thought the resemblance ends.  Henry is in administration, responsible for the supervision of the faculty and all things pertaining to instruction.  I spend a lot of my time in the classroom instructing students in the niceties of the English language.  We have two very different jobs.

So, clearly, Henry and I are distinct people.

But it seems we have much in common.  In fact, it appears we look very much alike.  Shortly after Henry started his job here, I was on my way to the parking lot when a man, a complete stranger, hailed me out, calling me Henry.  Only when I approached closer did he realize his mistake.

Just a few days ago, another friendly fellow told me that he had seen my picture in the newspapers and asked if I was the Vice President of Education.  I politely informed him that there are three Vice Presidents at Taft College and that I was not one of them.

And this very evening as I walked through the staff parking lot, another gentleman told me something about Victorville.  Now, I remembered that Henry lived in Victorville before he came to Taft, so I made the connection and replied that I wasnt Henry and that I was just an ordinary teacher.

What might be puzzling to the observer who knows both of us is that Henry and I really dont look much alike at all.  Henry is tall; I am not.  Henry has a full head of hair; I dont.  Im bespectacled; Henry isnt.  Henry and I have different facial features.  We even walk different.

But, alas, we might be mistaken for each other.  You see, we are both of Asian descent, and studies have confirmed that minorities appear similar to the eye of the majority who are unaccustomed to distinguishing the individual differences within other racial groups.

But I take no offence.  After all, Im in good company, and Henry and I are one in purpose: to help Taft College serve students what they needa solid education for the future.

English: More or Less - March 24, 2006

Heres a thought: We all have a perfect knowledge of English but are imperfect when we have to communicate it in formal situations.  When we speak in ordinary conversation other people usually understand us, even when we are grammatically incorrect.

Our problems with English occur when we have to write or speak in situations that demand more complex expression--when we commit our thoughts to paper for something more than a grocery list or address an audience on the topic of Shakespeares literary influence on Western culture.

Suddenly we find ourselves less than fluent; we begin to grope for words to convey deeper thoughts and feelings. We may ramble or end our sentences abruptly and incoherently. We may spew inaccuracies of syntax, grammar, and punctuation, and then await tremulously for our teachers to hand us back our work gorged with red ink.

But you know what you want to say. And when you write what you want to say it is usually clear in your mind, or at least clear to you.

Your audience, however, is not easily satisfied. They want sentences that end with a period, not two sentences strung together with a comma. They want decent-looking paragraphs that have a main idea with supporting details. They want a clear introduction, a full-bodied middle, and a concluding paragraph that neatly summarizes your central argument. They want words correctly spelled. And they want all of it to make sense, to flow with ideas one into the other, and they want voice and style.

Is it any wonder that you want to throw up your hands in despair?

But no, in spite of experiences you may have had with the devil called English composition, you have decided that you will defeat him. You have bravely signed up for a writing class at Taft College and you are determined that by the end of the semester you will be staring him down.

Zounds, you say, when I have finished defeating the Devil I will write with simplicity, clarity, and grace. I will wave my magic pen and write and re-write, looking for less clutter, more precise words, a better way of saying this or that, a smoother transition between paragraphs, a powerfully-expressed idea.

I will challenge myself to think and write with style, with prose that sings as sweetly as a mockingbird. No one, you say, will have reason to furrow his forehead in puzzlement or shake his head sadly at a misspelled word. No, your essay is well organized, thoughtful, with a well-placed quote here and there, and by Zeuss beard, it says more in less.

Aha.  Is this the well-guarded secret in academias ivory tower?  Is this what professors do among themselves, huddled over a pot stirring words of dubious character?  Have I stumbled onto their little plot? 

Surely they know that they can say more in less, but they choose to write lengthy books and bring heavy textbooks to class and talk in monotone about all the intricacies of the writing process, creating a language of their own that causes confusion in the heavens.

No, no, no.  I have discovered the antidote, you say firmly.  I will understand and fully grasp what I need to knowthe essentials of grammar and mechanics, the simple yet powerful techniques of writing well-constructed sentences and paragraphs that form coherent essays, and I will be able to do all of this without confusing either myself or my reader. 

It will be hard work, but I will know when and how to conclude my thoughts clearly and directly, without tiring my reader, by saying more in less.

Like this.

Of What Use is Poetry? - April 18, 2006

There they sit, biceps bulging.  Pleasant young men, every one of them.  A quick smile, a ready greeting, a booming Chung-Wee! across the quad.

The male athletes in my classes at Taft College add energy and excitement to the campus, as do all the athletes.  These young men come to our college to play baseball and soccer.  Some come from other states and outside the country, as far as Canada.  They are here with a purpose and a mission.

But poetry?  What relationship is there between the abstraction of poetry and the gritty reality of their sports?

I venture to say: A lot.

Poetry talks about how we feel and think and live.  It expresses complex truths as well as simple yet profound observations in a precise and compact form.  Perhaps more intensely than all other forms of literature, poetry captures the essence and richness of human understanding, of our search for meaning in a world increasingly conflicted.

The following immortal lines from Robert Frosts The Road Not Taken may appear to be very distant from the athletic arena:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Yet they have relevance and significance to the athletic endeavor, indeed, to any human event.  As we read these lines we are struck by two major ideas, both of which should be apparent to my student-athletes: one, that their youth and vitality will inevitably fade and they will have only their memories and souvenirs to remind them of their youthful endeavors; and two, that those youthful endeavors became a reality because they chose a path that only a select few follow.

For the way of the warrior is to undergo a disciplining of the mind, spirit, and body that many people cannot or will not pursue.  I would hope that my athletes, in their quest to perfect their skills in their sports, would also reach for greater heights in the classroom.  The road they have chosen is not the broad and easy one but the straight and narrow, fraught with blood, sweat, and tearsto borrow analogies from the Bible and Sir Winston Churchill.

Indeed, it is by rejecting the ease and comfort of the well-trodden path which demands no exertion of will, no straining of sinews, that the athlete is able to blaze his own trail in an ever-challenging test of himself.  Thus, faced by the two paths which will carry him in quite different directions, he plunges ahead in the one that will carry him further, the one that compels him to reach deeper within himself.

The athlete mirrors poetry by exhibiting elemental characteristics of life: the struggle between the protagonist and the antagonist, the joy of victory and the agony of defeat, the constant striving to improve, the ebb and flow of a contest, and, perhaps most important of all, the strengthening of character.  Like the poet, the athlete demonstrates finesse, skill, and mastery of self.

It is no wonder that an athlete in the full flow of his or her performance is described as poetry in motion.

But as my student-athletes sit in class, looking as though they would spring into action, they might appear entirely removed from the seductions of metaphorical speech.  One can be excused for thinking that the poem in front of them is not a window into their souls but rather an exercise as incomprehensible as Braille.

Yet I have been delighted by some of their insights.  I once had at another school a hulking football player who delivered a stirring analysis of a war poem, an interpretation that demonstrated sensitivity and compassion.

And which one of us, athlete or otherwise, would fail to be moved, if only infinitesimally, by the following dire lines from Andrew Marvells To His Coy Mistress:

But at my back I always hear
Times winged chariot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

Perhaps not now, but later, in private soulful contemplation, my young and vital athletes will consider, as do all of us if given enough opportunity, the final end hurried by the passage of time, a shared destiny from which no member of humankind can escape.

In the meantime they will play their game and we will watch their performance, for All the worlds a stage, as Shakespeare wrote in haunting words about our brief drama as players before we make our final exit.

Those are hardly comforting words, but they reflect a tangible reality ever-present in the background of our lives.

To read poetry is to experience life in all its breadth and depth, to be surprised by its re-creation of our experiences, whether real or potential.  The sudden insight of a truth compels us to realize and perceive life in a different way or to underscore an experience with the force of words that bring pictures to our minds.

Poetry causes us to reexamine our lives, and for my student-athletes perhaps the principal message for them as they hunker behind their texts, thoughts wandering toward the days forthcoming game, is to seize the opportunity not only to play their sport but to broaden their minds,

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

These words by William Blake urge us to see beyond the ordinary and the temporal, to visualize the extraordinary beauty of our universe.

And when an athlete is in the zone where each movement is a classic study in perfection, his performance is a beautiful and marvelous creation.

The passion and magic that poetry weaves is thus not beyond his appreciation, nor ours.  The world shall not last forever, and neither will we.  In the meantime, we are urged to live for the moment, for the day, to the fullest extentto Seize the Day!

Behind the Bamboo Curtain - May 22, 2006

It was the summer of 1973 and for the first time I was surrounded by people who looked like me.  It was a strange, and most unusual, experience.

I was standing on a street corner in the middle of Peking, now known as Beijing.  The capital city of China was bustling with a horde of humanity, many on bicycles swooping their way through the broad streets.

I looked around and felt as out of place as I did back home.  I felt alien in the midst of Chinese, although I am one by race.

But this was the land of my forefathers and I did feel some connection, albeit a tenuous one.  This was the land my grandparents had departed for a better life in the New World.

This was the land I had returned to for three weeks to take part in the first Friendship table tennis tournament in Chinas unveiling as it reached out to the world through what came to be known as Ping Pong Diplomacy.

The tournament drew players from 86 countries, from the continents of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  At enormous cost, the Chinese government footed the bill of passage for hundreds of players and then provided board and lodging at hotels complete with souvenir stores and barbershops.

First and foremost the tournament was meant to showcase China as a nation with a new direction, using table tennis to foster relations with countries around the world.  It was an experience of a lifetime to take a peek behind the bamboo curtain that had long hidden China from the rest of the world.

The business of entertaining us with friendship was carried out with efficiency and much preparation.  We were given tours of factories, bus rides through the countryside, viewings of Chinese theatre, and visits to the modest homes of the average citizen, as well as schools and business places.  And then there was the Great Wall.

The Great Wall of China snakes its way for as far as the eye can see.  Originally built to secure the land from invaders, the Great Wall was a monumental labor that literally cost blood and lives.  To see it, feel it, and stand on it was to be part of history.

As I gazed at the vast expanse of land through which the Great Wall stretched until you could no longer see it, I wondered what kind of person I would have been had my grandparents not decided to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

Undoubtedly I would have spoken Chinese, and therefore some part of my thought process would have been different.  Culturally I would have been far removed from the Western way of doing things.

I would be arising before dawn to practice Tai Chi in the park and sidewalks, to welcome the early rays of the sun with the slow ballet moves of the ancient art of self-defense.  I would be drinking herbal tea as a matter of course, seeking the attention of doctors who would cure my ailments with acupuncture and herbal remedies in addition to traditional medicine.

I would not have caused curiosity and confusion.  I would not have had an English professors secretary at the University of Toronto write a note to him saying He speaks good English.  I would not have had a former neighbor ask me in puzzlement whether I teach English as a second language at Taft College rather than English to native speakers.

The connection with this land teeming with 1.3 billion people is there, but that connection is also distant, as removed as many Americans are from the array of countries their own forefathers had left.

Now China is a different country, with a thrust toward modernization.  Its economic engine has propelled it to the forefront of developing nations.  It is rising peacefully and is touted as a potential superpower. 

In place of the hordes of bicycles I had seen in Peking Square are cars, some built locally.  The jacket I had seen everywhere in imitation of that worn by their leader, Mao tse-Tung, who had ruled the country for quarter of a century, has been largely replaced by more fashionable dress.

One thing, however, has remained constant: the Chinese dominance in table tennis.  On the celluloid table in that summer of 1973 Chinese players demonstrated breathtaking skills.  Their dexterity and technique dismissed most of the competition, their only challenge coming from other Asian countries.  As before and since then, China has consistently been ranked among the best in the world.

Our plane departed this giant of a land on a journey that would take several days to reach our destination.  On the way home we changed planes in New York City.  Little did I know that one day I would return to American soil, an immigrant like my grandparents, seeking a better life and a better way of life.

Teachers We Remember - June 12, 2006

We remember the teachers who were passionate about their teaching and our learning. We remember the teachers who distinguished themselves by how much they cared about us. We remember those who struck our funny bone and made us laugh out loud.

Above all, we remember the teachers who changed the course and direction of our lives.

I first met Father Fred Rigby, a Jesuit priest, when I was in high school. Tall and angular, even his voice was long and thin. He taught French, his eyes and voice dancing to the smooth rhythm of the language. So vivid was his description of eating a croissant in Paris where he had spent a year reading for his masters degree that our teeth sank into it with a crunch as the hot aroma wafted through the classroom.

He would stand in the hallway outside the classroom at the end of morning break, his lean figure slightly inclined as he watched us file past him. He was a steady and comforting presence in a schoolboys life. In the classroom we were led step by step through the intricacies of grammar and translation, our lessons crafted by a master teacher.

Once he asked us to memorize a few lines of French poetry. Amazingly, it was much easier than we thought. Im sure none of us still remember those lines, but what I remember is the cadence of the poem. Suddenly those lines took on a life of their own in my mind, and I pictured the images as they flowed in succession. I breathed those words until I spoke them like a native.

Whenever we passed each other at school Fr. Rigby was sure to inquire Ca va? I would reply Ca va bien. This exchange, mundane though it was, served to signal a connection between the two of us that lasted a lifetime.

It was largely because of Fr. Rigby that I decided to pursue an undergraduate major in French. I even taught French, among other subjects, at the high school level, and on a few occasions I saw my mentor when he was able to visit the school where I taught.

Years later I heard that he was ill and had returned to England. I emailed and called him, and we exchanged pleasantries for a few months, until one day I called and was told that he had passed away. In one email he wrote that he had no fear of death and that he had put his life in the hands of the Lord.

I can imagine him reaching heaven and inquiring of the Lord: Ca va?

Then there was Desmond Sequeira, a young man who was my English teacher when I was 14 years old. Mr. Sequeira also had a passion and love for his subject. He read Shakespeare with fluency and articulation. Julius Caesar and Brutus sprang to life as he rendered their speeches to a class of boys who listened raptly.

I wondered if my English teacher ever had time to devote to himself. We were a class of 30 boys, and he spent 15 minutes grading each of our essays, which meant that he spent more than seven hours every weekend grading our papers. This was in addition to other classes and papers to grade.

Two images of him remain engraved in my memory. At the end of every class he would stand by the door with a tin container in which we dropped whatever money we could spare for the benefit of any of our classmates who could not afford something he really wanted.

The second scene still makes my heart swell in proud remembrance of my English teacher. The annual Sports Day climaxed with the Masters race, a hundred-yard dash pitting the teachers against each other.

It so happened that my math teacher, a short and stocky man who conducted his classes with an iron fist, was the favorite. He was seen running around the track at a great pace. Everyone predicted that he would easily win the race, so impressive were his practice runs.

As for my English teacher, there was nary a sign of him doing anything remotely resembling training. The most action I saw from him was standing in class delivering Shakespeare with great conviction.

To my surprise and delight he took off like a hare at the starters gun and left the field in his dust, including the much-vaunted math teacher. At the end of the race, a long line of boys ran after him to congratulate his magnificent feat. Did they catch him? No. How could you catch a wish upon a star?

To this day I thank him for inspiring me to become an English teacher. In the meantime my love for writing bloomed in his class. At the end of the period he would read one of my short stories to the class. It was a writers dream. Not only did my classmates listen to my words, they laughed in the right places!

After many years I found and called Mr. Sequeira. He had left teaching, but he had not left the memory of one student who delighted in his teaching.

Fr. Rigby and Mr. Sequeira brought their subjects to life and etched an indelible memory. Ca va bien, Fr. Rigby. All is well, Mr. Sequeira.

The Pleasures of Punctuation - July 3, 2006

They are so small they seem insignificant.  But its impossible to write a complete sentence without using one of them.

Who are they?  They are marks of punctuation.

Their importance is often overlooked, but their absence or presence can save a life, as the following story illustrates:

In Russia a period once actually saved a mans life.  The czar had condemned the man to death and sent this note to the jailer, who had been instructed to wait for orders: PARDON IMPOSSIBLE.  TO BE EXECUTED.  The czarina, who felt sympathetic toward the prisoner, intercepted the note and changed the punctuation as follows: PARDON.  IMPOSSIBLE TO BE EXECUTED.  The jailer thereupon released the prisoner, who escaped from the country before the czar discovered what had happened (Ruth Rice, English Teachers Book of Instant Word Games).

Of course, punctuation marks are rarely so life-altering, but they can change the meaning or tone of a piece of writing.  Each punctuation mark seems to have a personality of its own, lending a distinctive note to every sentence; indeed, the rhythm of writing would have little rhyme or reason were it not for punctuation marks.

Perhaps the most commonly misused (and abused) punctuation mark is the comma.  This little squiggle causes us to pause, momentarily hold our breath, and then plunges us ahead.  It is often like the conductor of an orchestra who pauses for effect, then directs his players to resume their instruments.  Or, like waves lapping the shore, the comma creates a rhythmic flow, to and fro, to and fro.

An even more emphatic pause is wrought by the semicolon; this punctuation mark brings together two ideas that are closely connected.  The writer wishes to emphasize their intimacy; they are like family members, separate yet close in blood and relationship.

The dash, on the other hand, shoots us forward, almost abruptlyas if on a surfboard accelerating on the crest of a wave toward the shore.  Often it adds a thought that summarizes or emphasizes; sometimes there is a change in thought, in midair, and then it brings us suddenly to the ground.

The colon is like the dash, a close cousin, but without the abruptness.  The colon is your attentive butler, introducing you to the wine and cheese party, as he announces to you in a confidential whisper:  May I direct you, sir, to Lord Applewhaite.  He is in the corner by the bar with the following gentlemen: Admiral Rawlins, Colonel Kentucky, Senator Gomez, and Chief Judge Tanaka.

In contrast, the period is conclusive.  It is clearly and unequivocally the final stop, and it signals the termination of a thought.  To barrel through the red light of a period would be to break the law of the letter and commit the cardinal sin of a run-on sentence.

And what to make of the question mark?  Like the period, it concludes a sentence, but it invites not the end of a thought but the extension of one.  Invariably as we ask a question the pitch of our voices rises, opening the way for a reply.  The Spanish language is even more emphatic in welcomingalmost demandinga response with the placement of a question mark at the beginning and ending of the sentence.

When you want to express a strong feeling an exclamation point seems the best way to go about it.  Golly! you exclaim as your hammer smashes your thumb instead of the nail.  The sharp form of the exclamation point seems fitting to the emphasis of the moment, driving the period into the ground.

A rather more subtle form of expression is the parentheses (those two semicircles around the part of a sentence) that enclose an afterthought or an aside or some additional information.  Parentheses enclose remarks that are sometimes witty or whimsical (have you ever slept in class with your eyes open?).

Quotation marks are clear signals that someone is speaking: Golly!  Did I really smash my thumb?  They are also used, you guessed it, for quotations and to indicate that an expression has special significance: New York is called the Big Apple.  Titles of poems and short stories are also enclosed with quotation marks to indicate that they are titles.  In short, quotation marks declare Look at me!  Im saying something!

Apart from the comma, the apostrophe is the most misused, both in presence and absence.  Interestingly, like the comma its a squiggle, but it aims not to pause but to contract, bringing two words together like close friends (it is=its).  It likes to reconcile and add a bit of informality to writing and speech, like ol Uncle Harry, bluff and with a gravelly voice:  Well, lad, lets see what your uncle can and cant do for you.  Its a shame, aint it, that your folks wont and dont want to buy you a brand-new Lexus, eh?

These highlights of the use of the major punctuation marks serve to underscore their importance to the sense and significance of writing.  One more example follows: An English professor wrote on the board A woman without her man is nothing and then asked his students to punctuate it correctly.

All of the males in the class wrote: A woman, without her man, is nothing.

All of the females in the class wrote: A woman: without her, man is nothing

A Jury of Her Peers - July 31, 2006

I have a story to tell you.

Its about a man and a woman. No, its not about romance or unrequited love or passion unfeigned.

Its about murder. He killed her spirit and so she killed him. The problem, you see, is that he was a cold, controlling man who isolated and confined her to the house.

He wouldnt even give her a telephone.

I hear gasps of indignation. Surely he deserved an early demise, that wretch of a man. Not only did he deprive her of her family and friends, he removed her from all contact with the outside world on a farm separate and distant from the nearest neighbor.

In addition, her own voice was silenced. As a young girl she loved to sing, but her song withered under the oppression of a loveless marriage.

And when she brought a canary into her wintry home to lend her companionship, to fill the void of her life, that infinitely cruel man broke the canarys neck. He twisted its neck in much the same way he strangled her life.

So one night she took matters into her own hands, literally. As he was sleeping, she slipped a rope around his neck and strangled him.

Was she crazy? The sheriff and the county attorney didnt think so. She was their prime suspect, but they didnt have the motive or evidence.

It was left to the sheriffs wife and the neighbors wife to figure it out. They recognized the signs of an agitated mind, the unraveling of a woman who had reached and gone beyond the edge.

They saw a kitchen in disarray, the half-empty bag of sugar, the dirty toweland the quilt she was piecing. The last thread was jagged, rough, and unfinished. Was she going to quilt it or knot it?

Then they saw the bird. Like her, its voice was gone, the life squeezed out of it. But quick! The men were returning, and if they saw it, they would deduce the motive, sum up the evidence, and convict her of murder.

The two women locked eyes, searching each others soul. The sheriffs wife attempted to hide the box with the bird in her handbag, but it was too large. She stood rooted to the floor, unable to handle the bird.

The neighbors wife, almost without thinking, grabbed the box and put it in her coat pocket, just as the men entered the kitchen.

The sheriff and the county attorney, with the jovial demeanor of men pandering to women, inquired if they had decided whether Minnie Wright was going to quilt or knot it.

The answer: "knot it."

Left unsaid was the conclusion that Minnie Wright had knotted her husbands neck.

And so it was that Minnie Wright was protected from prosecution by two women who understood her plight, sympathized with her predicament, and empathized with her suffering, as only women can, at least in this story.

Were they right to hide the evidence from the law? She did, after all, commit murder. Yet she herself had "lost her life" to a cruel, heartless man.

The law of the land and the right to life can be a wrenching divide.

Was Minnie Wright innocent by reason of being a victimized woman? Or even insanity? Susan Glaspell seemed to think so when she wrote "A Jury of Her Peers."

What do you think? You be the judge.

Too Old Too Young - August 4, 2006

I suppose it had to happen sometime.

Ive been invited to join the AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.

It doesnt matter Im not retired, nor that I wont be for the foreseeable future. In fact, I probably wont be retired for the next 25 years or so, long after most of my peers have hung up their gloves. I fully expect to occupy a brand-new office when Taft College is entirely rebuilt.

But the AARP is concerned about other matters, not only about retirement. This organization, 30 million strong, serves the interests of the, ahem, older citizenry of the country. Once you reach their magic age to qualify for membership, youre in.

Ill play coy right here. I wont divulge my age because, well, just because. Suffice it to say that if I want to I can be a bona fide member of the AARP.

Thats all you need to know. And, apparently, thats all the AARP needed to know when they fired off an invitation to join their ranks.

But in the midst of perusing the many benefits of membership I find myself ruminating on the sobering thought that, egad, this baby is booming.

Yes, Im a baby boomer. Thats why I and friends of my age are opening our mailboxes to find a letter with a membership card we can so easily activate to become the newest recruits of the AARP.

Its a sobering thought especially becauseyou know whatwe dont have a huge amount of time left.

In fact, my parents generation is fast disappearing. And were next in line. This realization becomes acute whenever I call my aunt in Toronto. More often than not, she presages the conversation with the question "Do you remember Uncle Paul or Aunt Shelley or Cousin Lillian or ?"

With bated breath and a deep sinking feeling I cautiously venture to say "Yes, I do. Why?"

Then she proceeds to inform me that Uncle Paul or Aunt Shelley or Cousin Lillian has just passed away. Or, worse yet, theyve been afflicted with some ghastly, malingering, and totally fatal disease.

Nowadays Im afraid to call her. Who wants to be reminded that ones gene pool is a murky sinkhole?

Its all right for the fit and famous who revel in the bloom of their youth, grace magazine covers with their manicured teeth, and gush about how peachy life is, and then go on about how "fab" Britney looks as a new mother. After all, they have a long stretch of life ahead of them.

But for those who are already advanced in age or rapidly making inroads into their diminishing time on this earth, the reality doesnt always look so glitzy.

A friend of mine had this grim philosophy that gained even more weight as the years passed. It went something like this: Youre born, you grow up and have problems, then you get old and you have even more problems, and then you die.

I thought when I first heard his pronouncement that it was horribly pessimistic. I was, however, youthful, and with the naivete of youth, I felt immortal.

Thirty years ago thoughts of old age were as rare as snow in Taft. I was much more concerned about my immediate future.

But now is the time to reflect on the inevitable. Apparently, the AARP shares similar ideas.

So I took a good long look at their materials, even went on the web and did some surfing, and took a harder look at their website.

In the back of my mind was a cautionary thought: You might need some of this stuff to get you through your "golden years."

And that thought brings me to a question Ive had hanging around for a while: Whats so "golden" about those years anyhow?

Ive seen enough people who would give anything to be young again to know that old age is not necessarily prime time in ones life.

But a ray of hope has recently shone from an unlikely source: the same friend of gloom and doom, retired and literally camping out in his mountain cabin on most summer weekends, now has a different viewpoint.

He now says that life is not a cliff overlooking a yawning abyss but a sandy beach on an exotic Caribbean island. His life is filled with purpose, relaxation, and recreation. For him, its all fun in the sun and go with the flow.

So there can be hope for a better and still productive life in the twilight of ones years. After all, wisdom usually comes with experience gained through the passage of time, and appreciation of lifes grand and small pleasures is often magnified in recognition of the scarcity of time remaining.

I just hope my mind doesnt become scarce either.

But at least Ill have the AARP on my side.

The Whole Tooth and Nothing but the Tooth

I was 13 years old and terrified.

Gripping the arms of the dentists chair, I squinted at the shiny, sharp, and enormous needle approaching my mouth.

It plunged into my gum and I hit the ceiling with a voice double the usual octave.

Outside, I was sure, other children quaked in their shoes, then bolted through the door, never to be seen again.

But my dentist was not finished. Oh no, not by a long shot. After 30 minutes while my gum became as dead as Michael Jacksons career, he settled me into the torture chamber again and proceeded to pull, twist, turn, corkscrew, yank, and finally wrest a perfectly good tooth from my mouth with what looked like a medieval pair of pliers.

Why a perfectly good tooth? In those days, you see, the practice of orthodontics was not as advanced nor as humane as it has become today. In those days orthodontists routinely prescribed the extraction of teeth to accommodate the turning and straightening of other teeth.

I was not, of course, happy with the situation, but it was doctors orders. Thats how I ended up in my dentists chair not once or twice, but four times, during which the longest needle in the world stabbed my gum without the benefit of a topical anesthetic.

Over the years Ive sat in various dentists chairs at the mercy of their owners drills and other instruments that probed and gouged. I once had a dentist who performed such a vigorous cleaning that he drew blood, again and again.

Who are these people to whom we entrust such a necessary and precious part of ourselves?

Well, I did a little research and found out some reassuring things. I found out that its really quite difficult to get accepted into dental school in the first place. Most successful applicants have a bachelors degree with a very decent GPA, usually above a 3.4. In 2003, 57.8 percent of applicants were accepted to the 56 dental schools in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

Part of the admissions hurdle is the Dental Admissions Test (DAT). This test consists of four parts: Natural Sciences, Reading Comprehension, Quantitative Reasoning, and Perceptual Ability. That last part puzzled me, so I looked it up and I discovered why dentists have such a gleam in their eyes when they survey the inside of your mouth. Perceptual ability is two and three-dimensional problem-solving. Dentists have the ability to see things in different configurations of shapes and forms that we lesser mortals cant. This ability enables a dentist to tell his wife that she looks just fine in her new dress without looking up from his newspaper.

To reach that enviable state the aspiring dentist, having been admitted to dental school, has to complete four years of schooling, the last two of which are clinical. Once having graduated from this rigorous course of training, the dentist has to sit a state exam and once having passed it he or she is then allowed to practice on our teeth. The dentist who wants to be an orthodontist then has to spend two more years of specialized training.

So as I recline in my dentists chair with my molars brutally exposed under the harsh glare of fluorescent lights originally designed for interrogation rooms, I can relax with the sure knowledge that my dentist knows exactly what hes doing. That is, until he says "Uh oh," an expression reminiscent of a mechanic shaking his head under the hood of your car as it belches forth a thick, putrid cloud of exhaust fumes.

"Whats wrong, doc?" I ask in fear and trembling when he finally extracts his little mirror.

"I was just thinking about my yacht," he says gravely. "It needs refurbishing before our trip to the Canary Islands. And its going to cost a lot."

With a sigh he places his mirror aside and pauses for a moment, deep in reflective thought.

I, too, am thinking deeply. Im thinking about the tremendous debt the typical dentist accrues from all those years in school. Brace yourself: Its about $115,000. And its got to be paid back somehow.

I recall a friend who went to another dentist because she was studying far from home and discovered that she didnt need all the dental work her family dentist had done. In my case, happily, Ive encountered only reputable professionals.

Todays highly-trained dentists are highly paid not only because they deserve it but also because they experience a particular kind of stress in their occupation.

Dr. Sterling Bryan, one of Kern Countys finest (anyone who does marathon running as a pastime has got to be fine), says that his work requires long hours of concentrated and focused attention. He has to be precise and accurate at all times for there is little or no margin for error.

Another challenge, he says, is to make every patient feel at ease, especially the ones who are afraid of the dentist. "Its all worth it when I can provide good care to a patient who is afraid or apprehensive and when I can make the experience not as bad as anticipated."

Further, he feels rewarded by being able to provide quality and long-lasting care, typified by seeing a crown in excellent condition 15 years afterwards.

Now thats reassuring. I can look forward to having my teeth outlast the rest of me. In fact, I still have my original silver fillings from when I was a gangling teenager, and signs are that they will remain there forever, unless some enterprising dentist persuades me to exchange them for the more natural colored ones.

After all, who wouldnt want to have a toothy and dazzling smile like Donny Osmonds?

But, you know what, you can have too much of a good thing. Nature didnt intend us to be perfect in every respect (our bodies, for example, are asymmetrical), so a perfect pair of ultra bright choppers might look out of place decorating a face well lined with character-forming wrinkles.

Thats the business of cosmetic dentistry where the "look" is everything. Then theres the practice of dentistry and orthodontics that seeks to promote the well-being of our teeth in addition to their appearance.

Need a perfect bite? Your neighborhood D.D.S. is just round the corner in Taft, ready and armed with the latest instruments, including the modernized version of the longest needle I ever saw when I was 13 years old and quaking in the dentists chair.

So help me, thats the tooth, the whole tooth, and nothing but the tooth.

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Success is Access

As you begin the new semester at Taft College, you know what you have to do to succeed in your classes: attendance, preparation, and timely completion of assignments.

Yet another way to help you pass your classes and to pass them well is to avail yourself of all that the Library/Learning Center has to offer.

As far as the Library goes, its holdings and services provide a "continuum of learning from Basic Skills to self-directed learners," according to Director of Library and Learning Resources, Dr. Mimi Collins.

Taft Colleges Library houses more than 20,000 volumes in print, 6,000 volumes online, 20 online databases, 100 periodicals, and 6 daily newspapers.

In addition, it is a branch of the Kern County Law Library, provides a work station for people with special needs, and hosts a videoconferencing center.

For the convenience of students, the library is open from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Friday. Sometime in the future the library may also open on Saturdays.

The Learning Center (TLC), headed by Instructional Support Coordinator Dr. Robert Hill, can also help you to improve your grades. In fact, dramatic improvement has been seen in the success rates of students who go for tutoring in the Learning Center. For example, students who were not tutored had a success rate of 62.5% compared to 90.6% of students who were tutored in Engl 1A over several semesters from fall of 2003 to spring of 2005. For Math 50, untutored students had a 43.5% success rate compared to 60.8% for tutored students.

The LC serves the tutoring needs of students with four senior tutors: in the Liberal Arts, Megan Christensen and Krystal Powell; in mathematics, Wei Hill and Matt Cooper. Tutorial and Assessment Aide Margaret Torczon, as well as peer tutors, also provide tutoring.

Clearly, it is in your best interest to seek tutoring, especially as it is free and unlimited. Dont think of tutoring as a service for those who are incapable of understanding anything. In fact, it is the smart ones who avail themselves of this valuable service. They are smart because they know that with this help they can do a lot better in their classes.

Together, our Library/Learning Center is central to your education at Taft College. Make the most of its services. Through it you have access to success. Ask any instructor or student who has visited and used the Library/Learning Center and he or she will tell you: Its just what the professor ordered.

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