Good Hands, or A Noisy Well-Lighted Place

Non-fiction By Bob Blaisdell

At the coffee bar, without a laptop, I decided to copy the Anna Karenina quotes by hand. So what, I’d later have to type in those luscious phrases and brilliant Tolstoyan insights.

To my pleasure and dismay, however, I saw and felt the Russian in my fingers sparking into my brain. My dismay was that for months I’d been typing the quotations, and I realized now, with the electrical charge of handwriting them, that typing had been wasted labor.

My typewriting fingers and hands remembered nothing and sent no information upstairs.

My method had been that as I completed each chapter (Anna Karenina has 238), I would then go back and reread it, writing down any words I didn’t know and looking them up. Much more importantly and excitingly, I typed up the phrases, sentences and paragraphs that knocked me out, that inspired me with the ever-renewed conviction that this was the greatest novel ever written. The problem was that at a computer I would type up those quotations in Cyrillic, but then, confused, continually getting annoyed with myself for having forgotten words, words I had just looked up, translate them into a haphazard English. But now, copying by hand the words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs, I knew as they poured out of my pen what they said! They were flowing back through my pen, into my fingers, up my arm and zapping me in the brain. I even saw I was making fewer mistakes copying by hand and that my fingers became more and more clever as they anticipated letter-combinations. (No, the лcomes before the soft-sound. And attractive here is an adjectivefeminine … so it has to end with aya– привлекательная.)

Copying by hand still meant that I would have to type it later (I was writing a book about my adventures reading the novel), but at the same time, I really understood what I copied and I didn’t need to translate it–the words said what they said! I had wasted so much time typing for the sake of neatness and saving time! What I saved in time, I lost in mind.

Of course I find the computer otherwise fabulously useful! But not for me learning Russian, and not for many of my students learning English.

How did I ever forget that my fingers have always been smarter at learning Russian than my mouth or ears? Several years ago, one sleepless, jet-lagged January night in St. Petersburg, anxious about my second session with a tutor, I pulled the covers tight and poked out my sweat-shirted arm into the dark. (It was literally freezing in my apartment and the light-switch was across the room.) I wrote Russian words in the air in front of me. The next morning in class, whenever I forgot the automatic responses to my tutor’s questions, I would, to her puzzlement, gaze off as if at an imaginary chalkboard and lift my right hand and start to write the word or phrase. Then I had it and could blurt it out! My lag-time was like the TV news reporter on the ground who hears the newscaster’s questions two seconds after he’s been asked–except he would speak his answers and I still had to write mine first.

I’m so convinced of the value of manual learning that I regularly quiz my developmental writing students on frequently misspelled words. I nag them, “You have to retrain your hand and then your hand will make you smart.” I also cajole any artists or musicians or athletes in the classroom to back me up on my assertion that our bodies remember better than our distracted lazy eyes do. I declare, “Your hand is a better speller than you are!” and wait for a student to tell me that doesn’t make sense.

And of course with all this assertion, it would be fair to ask myself, “Then why can’t you train your keyboarding fingers to shoot Russian into your brain?” I have no answer to that. So my scolding self says, “This may just be your peculiar problem, Bob.”

But then there’s Benny, a Brooklyn native in my research class who has dreams of law school. In our spontaneous in-class ten- or fifteen-minute response journals, his restless careening mind in his crude but legible block-printing is always interesting—continuous, agilely flip-flopping through thoughts and observations and reconsiderations. When he’s asked to write an essay at home, however, the life-blood of actual thinking drains out and he submits zombies. My theory? At his computer his brain stops. Instead of struggling with his thoughts, he stares at the screen and becomes self-conscious and thinks about impressing me or himself with his wisdom, which is only wisdom because it sounds like something wise. As I read his blustering arguments, his posings and blatherings, I grow annoyed and make sarcastic remarks in the margins.

After class Benny comes up to explain: “That’s what I wrote, but that’s not what I meant. I mean, of course it’s what Imeant, but it’s not really what I was thinking.—I can tell you didn’t like it.”

“Well, it was pretentious–or dead–when I could understand it, and when I couldn’t understand it, it was irritating.” I like Benny, so I feel lousy saying that. But he seems to understand and nods. I go on: “Why don’t you write it the way you write in class?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know! I can’t figure it out either. I’m just not in class. How can I pretend I am?”

I wait for a clever suggestion to come to mind.

I can’t figure it out. Because there’s also this: in class discussions, Benny annoys his classmates the way his home-prepared papers annoy me. He says things that he doesn’t seem to really mean—or he gives us the over-handled, soft, wormy fruit of his thought. But writing casual responses at his desk in the row by the window, the sea-breeze and the campus noises flowing in, he is a serious and interesting person—whose own thoughts are elusive; his feelings turn back on themselves as he writes them. It’s thinking and more thinking, right there on the page. (Sure, maybe if had a laptop and printer in the classroom his thoughts would be just as sharp, but I don’t think so.) I’m guessing there’s a resistance in that pen and paper that keeps bouncing up into his notice, making him reflect rather than try to impress himself or me with his brilliance. But maybe I’m wrong and instead it’s the pressure of the classroom, the race of competition, his awareness of the sand flowing through the hour-glass that connects his fingers to his brain.

Who knows? I can’t even figure out my own mysteries.

 

BOB BLAISDELL TEACHES ENGLISH IN BROOKLYN. HE HAS TRANSLATED AND PUBLISHED STORIES, POEMS AND ESSAYS BY TOLSTOY, ISAAC BABEL AND ALEXANDER PUSHKIN.
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