Dan Shiffman ~ Marginal Comments from My English Teacher During Covid

Avoid sen­tence fragments. 

My school days are not frag­ments, they are one big blur. The too-early–in-the-morning garbage trucks that sound like dying whales.  My mother’s bowls of healthy, taste­less oat­meal.  Which I don’t eat. The mind-numb­ing Zoom calls and the pale teach­ers who are on mute half the time or acci­den­tal­ly end the call. Sometimes,  I’m tempt­ed  to  push down the screen in the mid­dle of my English teacher’s  lessons about Point/Evidence/Explanation para­graphs and types of irony.   It’s not about mean­ness, it’s more about how every­thing  seems like weight­less  tis­sues that you could just drop on the floor and nobody would say you have to pick them up.  And why would I have ques­tions about frag­ments in an essay that’s already turned in?  “The snor­ing, the rain, and Mama’s hair that smells like bread.” That’s a sen­tence frag­ment  from The House on Mango Street, the book my essay was about.

Consider break­ing up this para­graph into sub­points.

My moth­er got us  a dog, a Finnish Lappie that sheds and chews on every­thing.   Rumi  sleeps on her back with her paws in the air, snor­ing.  She  is real­ly cute, but  it’s annoy­ing when she jumps on my  bed in the morn­ing.  Still, I like our walks togeth­er, and I am start­ing to notice the trees bud­ding and blos­som­ing  in the park, now that we are, as the coun­selor says. “learn­ing to appre­ci­ate what real­ly mat­ters.”  Getting out of the house is the hard­est part, and I try not to look at my phone when I do.  When Rumi pulls me along on the leash, I start breath­ing so loud­ly that peo­ple pass­ing by  must think I am hav­ing some kind of asth­ma attack.    My broth­er David was born dur­ing the first sum­mer of Covid, when the restric­tions tem­porar­i­ly eased up.   My moth­er some­times leaves me with David  dur­ing her nine or eleven minute high-inten­si­ty work­outs. Afterwards, she takes a long show­er and the steam drifts out into the hall­way mix­ing with the scent of brown­ies and sour dough bread.   My par­ents have decid­ed that it is OK for my friends and me  to meet in small groups togeth­er out­side with­out masks, but we just keep tex­ting each oth­er.  There are few­er and few­er things that don’t fright­en me or that don’t seem point­less.  I can only bare­ly remem­ber being dis­ap­point­ed when the eighth-grade grad­u­a­tion was can­celed last year.  Now the idea of look­ing for­ward to some­thing feels  intim­i­dat­ing and near­ly impossible.

State your point at the begin­ning of para­graphs.  Use top­ic sentences.

But it is bet­ter if I can build up to my point.  And those top­ic sen­tences look so exposed. “Your idea of shared par­ent­ing is a lit­tle skewed, Martin,” I heard my moth­er say.  The door slammed, I pressed down hard­er on my green high­lighter, and then David was cry­ing. I  think I wor­ry about oth­er people’s feel­ings too much. Maybe I should offer to help more with David, but I am not ready to change any­one’s dia­per. I think my par­ents regret hav­ing David.

 Good choice of evi­dence, but you need to pro­vide fur­ther analysis.

My  English teacher nev­er real­ly explains what she means by analy­sis.   I am not sure she even knows, like she is ask­ing me to do some­thing she can no longer do her­self.  Corona moves every­one  up one notch over  on the dial.  The neu­rot­ic peo­ple are now crazy,  the stressed peo­ple like my teacher are now fran­tic, the lone­ly peo­ple like my aunt are now ship­wrecked cast­aways, and the nor­mal peo­ple are just tak­ing on every­body else’s stress. It’s like every­one else’s feel­ings are sit­ting on top of me.

 Great point!  Tell me more!

We get  emails from the school coun­selor and links to mind­ful­ness rou­tines and videos about being pos­i­tive.  It doesn’t make any sense to me.  I don’t want to be pos­i­tive when I am not feel­ing great, and I don’t want to observe my thoughts and then release them like leaves float­ing along the sur­face of a riv­er.  Toxic positivity–that’s what I’m call­ing it.  My English teacher tells us to go to sleep at the same time every night, but she looks so tired her­self.  During one class, it sound­ed like some­one start­ed the world’s loud­est blender in anoth­er room  behind her and I’m cer­tain I saw her mouth, “For Fuck’s Sake, Carl.”  Then my English teacher’s four-year-old daugh­ter, Ellie, ran over to  her–she had a ring  of what looked like choco­late frost­ing around her lips–and tugged on the sleeve of her mother’s gray sweater.  When my English teacher tried to lift  Ellie  onto her lap,  Ellie reached out to the desk to push her­self up high­er and she acci­dent­ly knocked a cup full of tea. When  my English teacher gasped,  reach­ing out to grab the cup, Ellie slid off her lap  and ran away cry­ing.  My teacher moved away from the cam­era for a few sec­onds, and when she came back it looked like she couldn’t make up her mind whether or not she should apol­o­gize or just keep going with the les­son. She just kept going.

Notice the many ref­er­ences to women sit­ting by win­dows.  What do you make of this?

I get it, it’s about escape, but why do I have to look for  the deep mean­ings all of the time?  I just want to lie on my bed and  read these lit­tle chapters–vignettes my English teacher calls them– in The House on Mango Street  that tell Esperanza’s sto­ry, not write an essay about how they are inter­con­nect­ed by cer­tain motifs and sym­bols.  I most­ly want­ed to know what was hap­pen­ing to her. Her friends.  Her sis­ter.  The peo­ple in her Chicago neigh­bor­hood.  Esperanza seems like some­one  wait­ing to begin. I get that, but what scares me is that the  burst­ing out of my skin feel­ing that I used to have won’t ever come back and that I won’t even care if it does or not.

How else might this line be understood?

Just tell me what I am miss­ing, what I don’t under­stand? How can I know what I don’t know?  I won­der if David will remem­ber when every­one wore masks.  I won­der if Rumi will sud­den­ly feel lone­ly when our house is emp­ty dur­ing the day again, when the curve, and every­thing else, is com­plete­ly flat­tened.  One recent Blursday morn­ing, I lift­ed my head off  the edge of my key­board and felt the tiny dent on my fore­head as I looked through my bed­room win­dow.  A duck stood  alone by some red flow­ers.  It was like the duck had made a plan but all the oth­er ducks can­celed at the last minute.   The poor duck bobbed his head up and down like he didn’t remem­ber what he and the oth­er ducks were meet­ing up about in the first place.  That’s what every­thing feels like right now.


Dan Shiffman is a high school English teacher at the International School of Hamburg and an MFA stu­dent at Lindenwood University.  His work has appeared in such places as Hobart, X‑R-A‑Y Literary and Shark Reef.  You can read more of his work at danshiffman.com.