Gertrude SteinGertrude SteinWhile tutoring a high school sophomore, I was reintroduced to the work of Gertrude Stein. My student had been given a passage from one of Stein’s books and was told to write an essay about it. After reading and rereading and rereading some more, she picked apart each line, each phrase, each word trying to wring out some meaning. She added punctuation, which of course Stein had left out. She read out loud to her friends. She cried. This is what flummoxed looks like.

Exacerbating her frustration was the teacher’s prohibition of on-line research. Sure am glad I didn’t have this teacher in my first upper school honors course; honors curse is more like it. (Subsequently, I learned that the teacher who wrote the assignment was out on maternity leave, and the substitute was also Stein-stymied.)

At the start of out first tutoring session, I  assured her that her writing skills were solid.  Instead, we would work on her thinking skills. Thinking and writing go hand-in-hand of course, but when faced with such a challenging passage as Stein’s, our thinking may have to change a bit.  Obviously a close reading here will not suffice, so I encouraged the student to take a movie camera’s view.  For example, rather than relying on the close-up shot, pull back for a panoramic one.  Are there any patterns, repetitions?  It’s more than obvious that Stein’s writing is not a narrative nor an essay — is it even prose?  Maybe it’s a poem of sorts. At this point, the student began to look for common poetic devices and got on her way with the assignment.

N.B. We squeezed in a grammar lesson, too, since Stein’s pronouns often came long after their antecedents — pronoun agreement with antecedent!  Later the student texted me that  she was the only one in her class who even knew what an antecedent was!


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