May 24, 2018

LITTLE DETAILS: Time to learn something

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

It’s a Monday evening. I’m perched at the kitchen table surrounded by books and note cards. My husband sits at the dining room table, a thick text and notebook in front of him. Our daughter settles on the living room floor—her usual study spot—surrounded by a mass of books and papers. Her cell phone sits amid the academic sprawl, poised to accept a text at any moment.

Dinner is over. The dishwasher hums, scrubbing plates clean as we endeavor to imprint new knowledge onto the slates that are our minds.

I opted to take a class instead of teaching this semester. Introduction to Literature seemed an appropriate challenge for this dedicated reader of nonfiction. Being required to read “made up stuff,” I mused, was the only way to force my hand to put down the memoirs and histories I’m so naturally drawn to. (That said, I enjoy reading poetry and plays.)

The instructor’s well-crafted syllabus allowed me to make the acquaintance of authors I’d not been exposed to. William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Kate Chopin are among my new literary “friends.” Fictional tales from the American South and the nineteenth century pre-feminist-revolution era enhance my cultural understanding.

I enrolled in the class thinking, maybe, FINALLY, someone can teach me to appreciate Shakespeare. ACTUALLY, I learned why I’m not drawn to his work…a very important revelation!

Shakespeare, arguably, a highly gifted writer, tended to write plays in which the “upper crust” members of society assumed lead roles. Personally, I care less about the prince of Denmark’s fate than that of the person who fixed his meals or sewed his vestments. I assumed I was literarily challenged, unable to grasp the deeper meanings of his work. I now know otherwise. I simply don’t care for his work.

Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams are playwrights who speak to me and what I care about. I read their plays for fun and am drawn to performances of their work. These “realist” writers focused on the lives and problems encountered by the “everyman” and “everywoman” in society. I may not like the character of deluded traveling salesman Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” but I can relate to him, because I’ve met people like him.

Reading, crafting essays and discussing literature with classmates is proving a highly satisfying experience. I look forward to my Thursday evening class like a delicious slice of chocolate cake. It’s a treat.

Writing a research paper—something I haven’t done in a quarter century—is proving more daunting. Goodbye to onion-skin paper with red-tinted margins. Adieu to counting spaces to perfect bibliographical references. Hello to figuring out the vagaries of MLA and auto-formatting in Word. I’m still trying to decode delayed pagination. I feel my brain stretching, even as palms moisten amid obstructionist technology. It’s worth working up a sweat to learn something new.

Meanwhile, at the dining room table, my engineer husband hems and haws after a day at the office as he tries to decode French grammar. He’s shifted from problems of semiconductor chip development to decoding verb conjugations. He applies the same diligence to his study of a foreign language that he does to tackling technical problems. He sits with it. He thinks about it. He leaves it. He talks to someone about it. He comes back to it and voila—it makes sense.

I chuckle, just a little. Raised bilingually, my brain was wired from the start for parallel universe thinking. Conjugations were a snap for me. That said, math is not and my husband is my ever-patient tutor. He, too, laughs good-naturedly at my frequent mathematical gaffes.

Our daughter pores over chemistry or French or maybe a bit of literature in her preferred learning perch. Her method of studying is messy and scattered and colored by pens, pencils and highlighters. Staccato text messages come in fast and furiously as she and classmates discuss a homework assignment or engage in brain-saving diversions.

She continues to work long after we’ve retired for the night. All I know is that the mass of books and papers is gone by morning. Her backpack stands packed and ready for yet another day of high school.

We each have our own methods to approach the madness that is learning. What’s key is that we’re taking steps learn. As someone who occasionally can’t remember a word mid-sentence, knowing that I can now define and spell onomatopoeia with ease is, indeed, a treat!

It’s time to go learn something.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston.  Reader comments are welcome at or

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