I'm sure there will come a day when I look back at this and smile. This kind of tension in a household is completely acceptable, of course. It just didn't feel like it late on a Monday night when all of us, including the dog, should have been asleep. What caused all the stress? I could say that it was a semicolon, but that wouldn't be completely accurate. That is, however, where I noticed things going awry.
My son's essay was due the next morning, and he had spent the past several hours locked away in his room funneling his vision and opinions into five compact paragraphs. My wife and I took turns peeking in on him and asking after his progress. We might have been better served taking a nap during this creative flurry, but the end of the grading period loomed over all of us as a very familiar but still frightening specter. And so we waited.
Eventually, he emerged from his room and approached the printer where we waited as all those thoughts became corporeal. We could get our hands on it now, my wife and I, and so we set about doing the thing that parents have been doing since before my parents did it to my essays: We read. We responded. We critiqued. I weighed in with my concern about sentences that rambled on too long. Then I noticed the semicolons.
“My advice to writers just starting out? Don't
use semi-colons! They are transvestite hermaphrodites, representing
exactly nothing. All they do is suggest you might have gone to
college.” These were the words that sat in my head as I tried to dissuade my son from creating long, burdensome, complex sentences that went on and on and though they made a point eventually, many were stuck with that ambiguous punctuation that made me think only in terms of how his teacher might look on them. It made me think of the writing classes I had taken. The ones that taught me to get to the point. The teachers and professors who insisted on brevity. The ones who eschewed semicolons.
Of course, these were also the same learned souls who encouraged me to leave out exclamation points. If you point was valid and interesting enough, the reader would decide how much emphasis to give it. Then I remembered that my son was still learning. He was trying things out. He wanted to find his voice. I realized I was reading the paper of a high school sophomore. In the end, his mother helped rescue some of those semicolons, and though she backed me up on the run-on sentences, she left most of his vision intact.
Then we went to bed. The raw nerves of the writing seminar drifted away, and I dreamed of happier times. I dreamed of arguing about algebra.