I tutor in the writing lab; I like the one on one.  I once taught a composition class, where many students held sentences awkwardly, and dropped them to broken pottery pieces.  Everything was broke.  Most of them were on a mode: their language was hip to a stuffy dress code: everything was tucked in.  I tried hard to untuck them; told them not to shower, but floss their sentences.  After eight weeks they were still terrible.  I know why, a little. I started playing guitar about two years ago.  It’s like composition, learning how things mean.  The first scale I learned was the pentatonic scale.  I practiced it five thousands of times and could do it right.  I practiced it so much I can’t unlearn it.  It’s sort of burnt into my habit.  I want to play jazzy off-the-wall stuff.  I can’t.  I always end up playing a lamed pentatonic scale.  It’s my personal cliché and it’s utterly safe and I know why my students write tucked-in prose.

Anyway, a guy comes in to the writing lab.  His writing is bad: four hundred words that could be said in forty.  He is writing with a fifty-foot pencil: he can’t see his tablet, the words are blindly scratched on.  I can tell he’s a homeboy. He’s got rap music in his portable cd player.  I want to say to him: listen to that rap stuff; those dudes make money by juggling syllables: you can do that: make some meter.  His coughed up sentences frustrate the air as he reads them. And I know he didn’t learn that from rap music.  I don’t particularly like rap, but I like sentences that bend around a beat.  And I know that this student sitting in front of me doesn’t get it.  He can’t keep time. I think he was taught wrong.  He knows nouns.  He knows verbs.  He was made to master a myriad of obscure rules.  He doesn’t know harmony—a theme, or melody—a metaphor; twenty years of theory without music.  I show him the notes, patch up his broken phrases; he is worried that he’ll get a bad grade. He will.  I watch him read his work aloud, again, unanimated: 

word <comma> word word <splice> noun verbed adverbally <.> …”That’s what I learned in high school. In summary, <point a> word word(s) <point b> and most of all <point c>

It was code. He was coded.

I listened to the essay: the notes were stiff, with no argument. Sounds should debate the air, overcome and make music.  The lab was silent.  We were silent, and he left.  My guitar was leaning against the wall.  I picked it up, strummed it and navigated the scales.  I like the one on one: me and the instrument.  I tried to venture out, to play the wise jazz, but my fingers didn’t understand the mode—because my heart couldn’t comprehend the music.

Pete Carey is a graduate student at Western Kentucky University, a technical writer, an avid swimmer, and a young husband.  He is currently working on his thesis, a sprawling memoir, and in his spare time he dabbles in HTML and plays guitar.