Today I’m babysitting my granddaughters, but conjugating verbs in my head at the same time. I’m not conjugating just for the hell of it. Today is the last day of winter break and tomorrow I go back to tutoring English at the local community college. I am near comatose when Katie, the 8-year-old, interrupts me. “‘High School Musical’ is over. What should we do now?”
“Play school?” I say, and hope this will get me nearer to the reality I face the next morning.
Katie and her sister, Emma, 6, run into the kitchen and shove their cats off the table. “We’re ready,” they shout, as two startled felines each loses one of his nine lives.
Oh lord, now I have to teach the girls something and all I can think of — and who the heck knows why? — is parallel construction. In my tutor voice I say, “We’ll do the simplest form of parallel construction. Do you know what that is?”
“I do, I do,” Katie says, her hand shooting into the air. “I did real good on them in gymnastics.”
“Really well,” I say. And then I stop, think, and ask: “Did really well on WHAT?”
“The parallel bars, silly Grandma,” she giggles.
“Me too, me too,” Emma shouts. “I did real good on the peril bars too.”
“No, this is about parallel construction. You use it in writing.”
“Daddy got a ticket for that,” Emma says.
I am dumfounded. “He got a ticket for WHAT?” I ask.
“He was in a ‘struction zone,’ and he drove too fast.”
OK. Somehow they know the meanings of “parallel” and “construction” separately, but the concept of both, as they are used in writing, is lost to them That they are 6 and 8 might have a lot to do with it, but I’m not giving up.
“I think I’ll write some sentences for you,” I tell them. One cat is back atop the table, hissing at me. The girls don’t bother to chase the cat off, but instead bolt for the family room where they dump their Barbie paraphernalia all over the floor. Emma takes a Barbie’s head off its body. I look at the cat on the table and ask if he wants to learn about parallel construction. He spits out a hair ball. I join the girls in Barbie Land.
“OK, ladies,” I say, as I pick up Emma’s blackboard. “This is an example of parallel construction. ‘Barbie and Ken waltzed, fox trotted, and tangoed at the ball.’”
“Grandma!” Katie says, “Don’t you know that Barbie and Ken broke up!”
“No,” I say meekly. This breakup has come as a shock to me, but I recoil. “I’m going to write another sentence using parallel construction.” (Katie makes a gagging motion, but I pretend not to notice.) I write, “Barbie and Ken broke up, but Barbie kept the house.”
“It was Barbie’s house anyway,” Katie says.
“That’s not the point. The word ‘broke’ and the word ‘kept’ are both in the past tense so that makes the sentence connect better.”
Four confused eyes stare at me. Even the eyes on the unattached Barbie’s head look baffled.
“Well,” I tell them, “you don’t want to say, ‘Barbie and Ken have broken up, but she will be keeping the house’ because that doesn’t connect the ideas as efficiently. ‘Have broken up’ is an example of past perfect tense and ‘will be keeping’ is in future progressive tense.” Actually, I’m not quite sure my information is correct, but my audience is naive.
The girls cease eye contact with me, head toward the TV, and dive-bomb into their DVD and videotape collection. They pull out a spider-web covered box containing a Barney tape and soon I hear, “I love you; you love me” emanating from the purple dinosaur of their infancy.
I stop myself from pointing out that Barney is using parallel construction, but promise them that if they turn Barney off that Grandma will stop playing school with them. Instead I pop ‘High School Musical’ back into the DVD player. “You sit and watch,” I tell them, “while Grandma sits and sleeps.”
“You used peril ‘struction!” Emma shouts!
I can now go back to work knowing I have taught and they have learned.