Cultural Dissonance and Norfolk

TypingHe looks me in the eye and says, with the others around him watching, “So we’re not supposed to have help.” He is blonde, in his mid-twenties, has aspirations of being an electrician, and is a nice kid, even if a little hyper. He’s dressed casually, in blue jeans and a logo T-shirt with the name of the pizza place where he works full-time. On the first day of class, he told me it wasn’t the life he’d imagined himself having. In his last paper, he misspelled “Virginia” as “Vagina” and refused to understand the problem until I told him to look up the word. By contrast, in this essay, he writes eloquently about social parity and cultural dissonance. The sentences are liquid, infused with knowledge and insight. There are no spelling errors, no comma is misplaced, not a single apostrophe is missing (a punctuation mark that has largely disappeared since texting), and indeed a semicolon separates two compound clauses at the end of the first paragraph. A semicolon! I am suspicious.

“It needs to be your own paper,” I say.

“Yeah,” he says, nodding. “It was my topic. And I made the paragraphs.” 

I stare at him as the remaining students in the class move close towards us. Kids can just smell confrontation brewing.

What does this mean: he “made the paragraphs?” He decided when to indent? He hit the “enter” key to create new paragraphs? I feel the temper rising in me; so I breathe deeply and count to ten. I remind myself that it has been a good composition class and most all of them, even this one, have gotten much accomplished.

“Someone else can’t take over the paper and write it for you,” I say. I am giving him the benefit of the doubt with this comment. Instead of portraying him as the bored and frustrated pizza delivery guy who gets someone else to write his paper, I try to depict him (for the others as well as for himself) as the serious-minded future electrician seated at a computer typing his essay while someone else tries to push him away from it to replace his words. Tongue in cheek, I envision him yelling at the assailant: No! Stop it! Stop it! This is my essay! I must write it on my own!

“Right. I get it, Dr. H. You can’t ask for help.”

Yet, the whole class has been ‘help.’ It’s a workshop held in a room with computers where they worked on their essays about Harley Davidson and God Made a Farmer commercials and I went to each of them individually and gave feedback. I imagine him telling the Dean that I’ve asked him to write his paper without help. Our community college’s motto is “We’re Here to Get You There.”

My face warms. “Really, you don’t want to have a vocabulary quiz right here, right now, do you?” 

He blinks. “What?”

I point to the computer screen where his paper is being displayed by an indifferent monitor. The others have moved in now and huddle around us. I sense these interlopers looking over my shoulder. Nevertheless, a teaching moment is here and I enter it.

“What exactly is ‘cultural dissonance,’ in your opinion?”

“I have no idea,” he says. He laughs a little too. “That was Warren’s words for what I wrote.”

“Yeah,” I say, “And that’s the problem. Either they need to be your words or, at the very least, you need to know what they mean.”

“It’s not like I copied and pasted it from Wikipedia,” he says.

Right, it’s not. But, I don’t say that. Too many of them cheat on purpose. Instead, I appeal to him that the words he writes must be his own, at least in this class. “Everyone else here wrote their own paper,” I say.

“I did. Then Warren helped me.”

Warren, of course, is neither someone in the class nor one of the community college composition tutors. It’s entirely likely, from my experience teaching other students, that Warren lives in New Delhi, perhaps some online game playing graduate student who thought it would be fun to tune up the kid’s paper. 

“I want the paper you wrote before Warren,” I say. “BW,” I think, like “BC.”

“It’s awful,” he says, “Remember ‘Norfolk, Vagina’?” The others laugh. I ignore them.

“I don’t care about that,” I say. “I want the awful paper you wrote.”

I live for your awfulness, I want to say: I wait upon your every grammatical stumble. What else would I have to circle with my purple marker? Warren, you see, has taken the very purpose from my life.

He shakes his head. He looks like a pizza delivery guy who has upgraded my order to an extra large, Super Crust, Bazillion Topping Supremo — anchovies, pineapple, bacon, the whole deal — without me asking, and for no extra charge, but I am sending it back because all I asked for — and still want — is the pathetic, flat crust one-cheese pizza.

“You want my awful paper,” he says.

“Right,” I say. After all, by God, I am here to get him there.


Sandy Hiortdahl lives in East Tennessee, where she teaches at Northeast State Community College. She is a recipient of the Sophie Kerr Prize and has an M.F.A. from George Mason University and a Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming this year in Third Wednesday, Bewildering Stories, Punchnel’s, Barely South Review, and others. More may be found on her website: