Once Upon a Time in a Classroom, Far, Far Away

“Panoply”  makes my teeth itch. It’s an English teacher word (not its fault; I’m not blaming it), one of those that kids learn in high school as they develop their vocabulary so they can write longer more descriptive essays. Unfortunately, as a college writing teacher, it was my job to unteach them and it wasn’t always easy. Lots of students felt betrayed. “But my high school English teacher said…” I tried to explain it as the way a giant amorphous gaseous unfocused section of the universe could collapse into a singularity of immense gravity and power, smaller and more intense.

“Panoply” goes along with “plethora.” Back in the day, when I saw either of these words little worms crawled under the skin on my arm. I knew what was ahead of me.

So who were these kids? Mostly they were kids who thought using big words (that they never heard in real life) would impress their teacher. In their mind, “English teachers like these words. If I use these words, she will like me and I will get a better grade.” That smarmy, unctuous little creature didn’t get it.

“Why didn’t I get an A? I always got A’s on my English papers in high school.”

“Well, Lamont, you didn’t follow directions. This isn’t supposed to be an argumentative essay. It’s supposed to be an observation of a place in nature. I gave you a handout. All you had to do was fill it in as you looked around.”

“You never said that.”

“OK, that’s not a conversation I’m having, Lamont. If you look at this panoply of papers here, done by your classmates, you’ll see that everyone did the assignment except you. You tell me what that means, ‘K?”


“Lamont, you want a chance to do this assignment right? You don’t deserve it, but I’ll give it to you.” I didn’t say, “Because I’m the all-powerful deity in charge of this room for one hour three times a week and from my high promontory, I can make all things new again.” It was a PR stunt. A kid like this didn’t deserve a second chance, but if I gave it to him, it would speak well of me. It might (often did) turn into a teaching opportunity for a skill more important than writing. He might learn that his homework is for HIM not for ME.


“Yeah, really. I know you know what the assignment is. It’s on the syllabus, it’s on the handout I gave you.”

“Uh, I never got the handout.”

“How’d that happen?”

“Uh, I wasn’t here.”

“Awright. Here you go. Bring your paper Monday. You’ll lose a few points, but if you don’t do this project, a lot of the stuff in class won’t make sense, OK?”

“Thanks, professor.”

I had an immense panoply of these kids. An entire plethora.



21 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time in a Classroom, Far, Far Away

  1. And yet you continued on to teach (right?). I ran into some of these ‘students’ in the workplace. Expected things to be ‘fair’ all the time, and for the supervisors/bosses to give them a break because they used excuses mighty similar to those you’ve offered in your post. Yeah. Doesn’t work well in the ‘real’ world does it? My niece is a teacher (general ed – first graders)…and I still don’t know how she stands it. The dumb would bother me so badly (not for little children, but those who are older and SHOULD know better) that I’d have given up real shortly.

    • I taught about a million of this kid, pretty standard issue. Toward the end of my career, after the education system had changed and parenting changed, I couldn’t do it anymore, but I taught for 38 years and loved it for 33. 🙂 It just takes detachment and a sense of humor.

  2. I believe it’s good to know what these words mean, but it’s a bad idea to promote them as words for writers. They don’t clarify text or make it more elegant, just more confusing. And then, as you said, you get to unlearn it all over again in college.

    It’s just a plethora of pontification (is that a word?) … one of many of a panoply of words you are going to NEVER EVER USE AGAIN — unless you are a rhymer and need something that goes with something else.

    Does something rhyme with panoply? Canopy?

    • The problem isn’t the words. It’s the kids who think the way to get a good grade is to make the teacher like you and who think that teachers “like” big words. Those guys really don’t know what they’re in school for or even what words are for. BUT I guess there is still a vocabulary section on th SATS…

  3. I guess a lot of non-teaching work like grading papers will disappear if a majority of students realize that they are studying to learn and not for the grades.

  4. I think I’d make them read some passages from a variety of different suggested authors first before even starting to write. This is just to give them understanding that your papers aren’t a vocabulary test.

    • You think that hadn’t happened? Most kids have no idea why they’re in school and everything they read is as abstract and meaningless to them as the whole ridiculous charade. Good teaching is about awakening internal motivation.

  5. Oh dear. I’m sad. I don’t think I would use panopoly in a sentence, but I do like the word plethora. It is kind of friendly, in my opinion. I also like the word ubiquitous. I always think of Chinese restaurants when I think of ubiquitous. They are everywhere. 🙂

  6. Good ol’ Lamont! I wonder what he & Dude are up to these days? I just finished listening to a FUCKING AWESOME audiobook, The Jesus Cow written and narrated by Michael Perry, to whom I could listen every day. The protagonist, Harley Jackson, and his best friend Billy have conversations that, strangely, made me think of your boys.

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