Monday, September 1, 2014

I Must Have Missed That Sight

By Chip Putnam, CFH Ghost Writing and Content Services Lead (and teacher)


A few years ago, I took a trip to the Great Plains with my family. Trips like this should be taken by car, for only then do you get to experience ecosystems changing as you leave the comfortable world of the deciduous forest and enter into the realms where grass rules supreme. Although, in an effort to provide a truthful disclaimer, most of the ground east of the Missouri River has been plowed and sown with corn. It was on these lands that Lewis and Clark journeyed and Ma and Pa Ingalls laid claim to their homestead. And it was on these lands that the mighty buffalo once held court in a rolling palace of verdant splendor. Now, where majestic herds of buffalo once thundered across the horizon-spanning vista, domestic cattle and stalks of corn play the role of usurper. Years of slaughter have left the once-dominant megafauna of a large portion of this country exiled to a few enclaves such as Custer State Park in South Dakota and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. It was in both of these parks that we encountered buffalo, and I can say from personal experience that the adjectives of massive and majestic are not overused clich├ęs.

I bring up fond memories of this trip to highlight a problem that I encountered in my classroom this past week. It is the beginning of the school year—the time when students get the feel of their classes, learn the expectations of their teachers, and generally realize that their summer vacation is, indeed, over. Once again, in an effort to provide truthful disclosure, most teachers— myself included—must also come to grips with this realization. One of the first tasks that I always assign to my Advanced Placement Environmental Science students is to analyze a short essay summarizing the plight of the buffalo. As we were all struggling to get back into school, I decided to go easy upon the poor souls who had so recently been pulled from the virtual Nirvana of summer vacation, and I supplied them with a set of questions to help them purge the fluff that had accumulated between their ears.

“How did the native tribes of the plains use the buffalo?” was the first question the students had to tackle. This is where I discovered that there is quite a bit of difference between the words did and do. Did implies that the native tribes hunted the buffalo and used all parts of the animals for food, clothing, and tools. Did implies things that had occurred in the past. Do implies, so my students would have you believe, that I had missed an incredible photo opportunity on my vacation.

Imagine my surprise when their insight helped me to realize that I could have stood upon a hill and surveyed a vista covered with buffalo. I expect that, if I had maintained my vigil for a long enough period of time, I would also have seen Sioux hunters rushing in for the kill to provide a bounty of food and resources for their families. It would have made a marvelous photo opportunity, possibly winning my photograph a prestigious spot on the cover of National Geographic.


Of course, none of this could have come to pass. While the American Bison—the real name of the buffalo—has been brought back from the brink of extinction, the species is still considered vulnerable in the wild. My students’ understanding of verb tense appears to be equally endangered. The moral of this story is that even though people may take the summer off, grammar never rests.   

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