As I teach composition, I want students to veer away from simple reductions like “In our society today,” and would — despite what apocryphal high school English teachers taught them — rather read an essay that makes liberal use of the word “I” than substitute it with vaguely defined uses and thems. It’s hard to make this case when there are so few examples to offer, when most of the op-eds and commentaries resort to those fuzzy plural pronouns. How do “we” honor our veterans, one might ask, ignoring a vast swath of “us” that ARE veterans, or families of veterans; that veterans are sewn into the fabric of “us” and deserve to be included in “we” statements. The flip side of the coin are statements I’ve made myself, where “we” does not include “me” at all, but refers to a monolithic “they.” “We don’t give a damn about kids,” I’ve said, marginalizing the teachers and social workers and pediatricians and so forth who obviously do care about kids. Such as Minneapolis teacher Greta Callahan, who wrote this article for the Star Tribune.
I appreciated this article for two reasons — the vitality and importance of what Callahan has to say, and the way she writes it as a clear-eyed first person narrative, writing as she does from deep personal experience and investment, rather than the detached knowing-it-all voice of the pundit. Her “we” is the people who do care about kids, and a “we” that should be leading the discussion on what is “wrong” with schools and how to fix them. I shared this article with my composition students, pointing out that like Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (which we had been discussing), Callahan builds her argument on her own experience and her commitment to the cause.
I wonder why this isn’t championed more — rather than teaching people to write without the word “I,” and to assume expertise on every topic, to teach students to write directly from whatever-it-is they know well, what they have proven they care about. To use the word “we” as if there are myriads of social and cultural groups churning about. To me the most powerful writing is personal, direct and honest, and the greater truths it entails are evident: walk a mile in shoes, and see what I see, and even if we still disagree, you will know where I’m coming from.