Gimme Shelter: Why I taught Grammar to Kids Who Didn't Care (Parenting in Colorado, Part Three)

(or What I Learned about Parenting from The Rolling Stones)

In this interview, Mick Jagger calls the song "a very moody piece about the world closing in on you . . . ."

My hometown greeted 2014 with the lawful sale of recreational cannabis. Naturally, parents and educators are talking a lot about marijuana here in the 303. The debate is a many-tentacled beast in our local zeitgeist, and I will address various aspects of it in a series of blog posts here.

Today, I share my thoughts on the importance of helping teenagers learn to think critically about ALL issues in the world, including drug use.

Oh, a storm is threatenin' / My very life today / If I don't get some shelter / Oh yeah, I'm gonna fade away   -M. Jagger, K. Richards

I. The Inner Fortress: Shelter from the Storms of Life

We do not like to admit it, but parents cannot truly keep our kids safe. The storms threaten with too much force; the best we can do is offer some shelter. 

The best protection against the slings, arrows and other outrageous fortunes life offers is knowing how to think. Messages from corporations, institutions and industries barrage our kids every minute of every day. The only real shelter lies within themselves: the ability to discern good from bad, right from wrong, and truth from deceit.

This is the key to ultimate, adult liberty: being free to make choices unfettered by ignorance. This is also why I endeavored to teach high-school English.

II. Rhetoric is Power. Learn How to Wield It, or Fall Victim to It.

Although I think many students remember me fondly, I was not the kind of teacher who inspired a life-long romance with literature. As I reminded them often, I didn't give a whit about how much they liked a book. We had bigger fish to fry. 

Most high-school students would rather talk about anything besides grammar. Literary analysis interests them only slightly more. Discussions of tone, theme, purpose--and God forbid syntax or diction--inspire resentment and apathy in the average teenager.

And yet, nearly every day of my teaching career, I insisted on talking about grammar and analysis. And it was awful.

Why not change tack? Why sail against such rough winds, instead of taking the smoother course of young-adult lit and how it makes kids feel? Because their brains are worth it.

Adults have the opportunity (if not the mandate) to teach kids how to protect their brains against predators. In our brave new world of constant media messaging, the task is more vital than ever. I lost sleep over teenagers who fought my instruction (due to their unfortunate, adolescent circumstances), because unless we understand how arguments work, we are powerless against the barrage of arguments invading our mind-grapes.

III. Critical Minds Build Strong Backbones.

These almost-adults will soon be making decisions about where they spend their money, whom they support in elections, and how they conduct themselves in the wide, weird world. Our parental, teaching, and grown-up decree is to give them shelter from the storms threatening to blow them off-course. 

So we diagram sentences. We write formulaically in the classroom until we can prove a thesis with air-tight precision. It's brutal work, but the minds of our future adults are worth the struggle. When they know how to defend a logical argument of their own (which means knowing how to craft a smart sentence), students are more capable of recognizing the fallacies in the arguments aimed squarely at them.

The forces threatening our teenagers--and all of us--are too many to fathom. Nary a parent I know would argue against the importance of fortifying our children's inner strength in the face of all the evils in the world. That strength--that ability to make sound, responsible decisions--begins and ends with understanding the messages we receive and interpreting them wisely.

Let us give our teenagers the shelter of strong backbones and critical minds. The study of rhetoric--which begins with grammar and embraces logical argument--is an excellent place to start.

See you in English class.

[In honor of the human need for shelter, I will be giving Keith Richard's children's book for Christmas this year. Gus and Me: The Story of Granddad and My First Guitar, here at amazon.]

Please stay tuned for more installments! Follow me on twitter @lisafilholm; tune in often to; book a workshop or lecture for your parenting group now!

Open Culture's article on background vocalist Merry Clayton