Monday, October 15, 2007

Conferences, Geneology and Poetry

Fall break (Oct. 6-9) went by so quickly! I was exhausted from the literature festival. I was trying to get all my work done, while also attending tons of readings, lunches, receptions and after-hours gatherings (and I snapped this photo of the school mascot). I basically crashed all weekend, then used Monday and Tuesday to play catch-up.

Wednesday and Friday I had my first student conferences. For the paper they recently turned in, some students didn’t cite their sources properly, and one young woman seemed to have straight-up plagiarized hers. I had a tough decision to make. Would I just turn them in or try to put the fear of God into them? I decided not to possibly end their academic careers because I had a suspicion that was quickly confirmed: “That’s how I wrote my papers in high school, and no one ever said anything,” said plagiarism girl. The others said things like, “Well, I changed some words,” or “My teachers said you didn’t have to quote definitions.” WHAT??? Wrong, wrong, wrong.

My suspicion was that that some of my students came from the kind of school I used to teach at, schools where their teachers were overwhelmed by having too many classes filled with too many students, many of whom had deficient writing skills. Those fine men and women were just struggling to keep everyone’s heads above water and get everyone graduated. As such, they did not have the time or energy for teaching the finer points of quoting, paraphrasing and using proper notation. They didn’t have the time and energy to play plagiarism police. So I went for scaring them, but in a good-cop kind of way:

Me (with scary, serious tone): Is there anything you want to tell me about this paper?

Them (scared witless, but trying to hide it): No. Why? What do you mean?

Me: Let me read you the school policy from the syllabus. (Then I did, and if they still didn’t crack, I pointed out sections with obvious shifts in voice or information they couldn’t have without a source.)

Them: (Various excuses.)

Me (gravely, yet conspiratorially): Listen, most teachers would have just turned this paper in to the plagiarism board. Your teachers don’t need proof. If they even suspect you of cheating, they can pass the paper on for the board to investigate, and the board looks into it and decides what will happen to you. (True, true, and mostly true. The board gives the teacher a recommendation of what should happen to the student, but the teacher gets the final say. However, if the student is found to have cheated, it goes on their record regardless.)

Them: I’m sooo sorry. I’ll be more careful! It will never happen again.

Me: See that it doesn’t. I would hate to see your academic career ended over something like this. Besides, I want to read what you think and what you have to say.”

It wasn’t all bad. I got to have some good conversations with my students that may have made them better writers. I love one-on-one teaching experiences.

That weekend, I was so tired! During conferences, I’d have conferences from 8 a.m. until my 4 p.m. class, then class until 7. By the weekend, I was tuckered out, although I did start working on some poems. When poet Honree Fanine Jeffers was here, she read about a Cherokee ancestor who left her tribe behind to marry a slave.

I was struck by a question: How do two people of such different backgrounds come in contact? How do they decide to get married? I grew up knowing we had some Native American (Indian?) blood, and I remembered Grandma Carol talking about a Johnson ancestor whose Christian name was Rebecca.

I wrote a poem about it, then called my mom – keeper of the family tree … until it blew away – to get more details. Without the written tree, the only Indian ancestor she could think of on the Johnson line was…POCAHONTAS! (“WHAT?”) Okay, I vaguely remember being told that as a child, but as a little girl I could never keep straight if it was Pocahontas or Sacagawea. Years later, when I did research, I found conclusively that we could not be related to Sacagawea. Well, that makes sense, since we’re not even rumored to be related to her.

This new correction sent me after some new research on a forum for descendants of Pocahontas ( Okay, I found a Johnson ancestor linked to her, but that link is through a “Blue Bolling.” Pocahontas and her husband, John Rolfe, had one son, Thomas, who married Jane Poythress and had one daughter, Jane Rolfe. She married Robert Bolling and had one son, John Bolling. John married Mary Kenyon, and they had various descendants. I say various, because some people are confirmed descendants (known as “Red Bollings”); some are relatives, but not blood descendants of Pocahontas (known as “White Bollings); and some have been linked to the Pocahontas through mysterious Bollings who seemed to appear years later from out of the blue (“Blue Bollings”). So far it appears we descend from the Blue Bollings.

It’s entirely possible that I was tracing the wrong Johnson, and I’ll probably look into it in the future, but for now it’s a maybe. One way or another, someone in the family tree had to be American Indian. I mean, look at J.B.’s hair and eyes! Even if Pocahontas was an ancestor, could one woman in the 1600s have that much affect on his appearance? I suspect there were other Native American women mixed in here and there. Pocahontas is just the one the family claimed. She was famous and noble. Maybe some of my ancestors didn’t want to claim an average American Indian, but would claim and Indian “princess.” Well, if we claim Pocahontas, we also have to claim John Rolfe, the man who gave birth to the modern tobacco industry. Rolfe replaced the harsh, native Virginia tobacco (which the whites didn’t like and couldn’t sell) with “sweeter strains from Trinidad,” according to Wikipedia (where I also found the portrait above, left, by Simon van de Passe.)

That led more, interesting poems – not to mention more interesting poems. (What a difference a comma makes!) I’m taking inspiration wherever I can find it, and adding it to my file. A few poems have been lost. I forgot them before I got them written down or I lost the notebooks or scraps of paper or napkins they were written on. That weekend, I added my 150th poem to the file! That’s a lot of poems. Wish me luck on adding more, better poetry.

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