Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

The Strength of Character

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

The Strength of Character

Article excerpt

For this edition's theme of "Making the Grade," most entries addressed formal education, its achievements and its failures. Ranging in tone from inspirational to anxiety-ridden, poets meditated on societal concerns, such as equal access to educational opportunities, and on individual concerns, including mental, physical, and emotional impediments to educational success. In expressing both affirmation and doubt, these poems also offered celebrations of legacy and troubled musings on the uncertain future of traditional education.

Winner Katherine Cottle, in "Learning to Type," modulates these opposing moods. Making the grade here means more than sheer defeat or triumph; it further signifies an evolution of identity. On the surface, the poem evokes intense test anxiety, that familiar fear we continue to play out all our lives in dreams of archetypal angst. On a deeper level, the trepidation about controlling words by typing them correctly and speedily--a dread so heightened that "every comma and colon [cause] a pulse / of electric pain"--relates to the speaker's growing awareness of language as material, to her development as a writer. Each word she speaks she begins to see "cut down into individual / letters and chopped." But she also envisions "a pair of shadowed hands," those "recording hands" that become hers.

With "the keys now unleashed" for the speaker, "things would never be / the same." Discovering our own "bits of urgent symbol," our own worthy passions, is terrifying, yes, but also vital. Making the grade is not an accomplishment that can be met and dismissed but a challenge every true moment continues to hold us to.


Learning to type

It wasn't until the third week
that I felt the pull, each word I spoke

cut down into individual
letters and chopped, like onions

across a dull wooden board.
A pair of shadowed hands formed there,

in my head, hitting, each key
with the correct finger,

not forgetting to press
the space bar with my thumb.

At first, the interruption
was only slight distraction:

slowed speech, constant nods
to the beating rhythm.

But, by the eighth week, we were
being timed and I walked through

the day in a panic, each sentence
a frenzy of recording hands,

every comma and colon a pulse
of electric pain in my brain.

And, when I woke up one morning
sweating from a dream

in a language not of sight
or sound, but of type--

the alphabet broken down
into bits of urgent symbol--

I knew things would never be
the same, the keys now unleashed. … 
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