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The craft so long to lerne

If you rummage around the Internet with a search along the lines of “college students can’t write,” you’ll find that the “why Johnny can’t write” jeremiad has a long history.

The University Writing Center at Texas A&M quotes Adams Sherman Hill from 1879: “Those of us who have been doomed to read manuscripts written in an examination room—whether at a grammar school, high school, or a college—have found the work of even good scholars disfigured by bad spelling, confusing punctuation, ungrammatical, obscure, ambiguous, or inelegant expressions. Everyone who has had much to do with the graduating classes of our best colleges has known men who could not write a letter describing their own Commencement without making blunders which would disgrace a boy twelve years old.”

So with writing, as with just about any other subject covered in the op-ed pages, it’s clear that everything has been going straight to hell for a long time.

Still, an article at Salon.com by Kim Brooks, “Death to high school English,” is instructive about the particulars of our current descent into hell.

Ms. Brooks starts with a sentiment that virtually any college instructor could make:

For years now, teaching composition at state universities and liberal arts colleges and community colleges as well, I've puzzled over these high-school graduates and their shocking deficits. I've sat at my desk, a stack of their two-to-three-page papers before me, and felt overwhelmed to the point of physical paralysis by all the things they don't know how to do when it comes to written communication in the English language, all the basic skills that surely they will need to master if they are to have a chance at succeeding in any post-secondary course of study.

But, the moaning over, she goes on to inquire of students, and high school English teachers, what goes on in classes. The non-AP/honors track kids do journaling and skits. The honors kids read a few classic books, discuss them in small groups, and write some kind of essay on them. They work together, do peer review of writing, maintain folders, do informal stuff. They are not studying grammar and usage, or rhetoric or argument, or much in the way of formal writing at all.

Ms. Brooks talks to Mark Onuscheck, the chairman of the English department at Evanston Township High School, who says, “It's very hard to get a lot of teachers to teach those things, especially grammar. We have such a need to engage students. There's such an emphasis on keeping student enthusiasm going and getting them to want to actively participate. When you start talking about grammar, it's like asking them to eat their vegetables, and no one wants to ask them to do that. They prefer class discussion, which is great but to a certain degree, goes off into the wind.”

Then, in sympathy, she observes:

And of course, there's also the logistical issue, the almost insurmountable challenge of teacher-to-student ratios, miserable ratios that are only going to get more miserable in light of the devastating teacher layoffs taking place around the country. At this particular school, every English teacher teaches five sections of English, and each section has approximately 25 students — a dream load compared to what teachers at, say, a Chicago public face. But that still means a three-page formal essay assignment would translate into 375 pages of student prose to be read, critiqued and evaluated. The very thought makes a cold, dark dread creep across my soul.

It used to be, when I was a boy, that English class drilled the (supposed) rules of formal grammar into you from at least the fourth grade on, and you were required in high school to write essays in a stilted, artificial, formal pattern according to similar supposed rules. Plainly, the schools no longer do that. But—and this is important, remember Adams Sherman Hill?—most people didn’t write very well under the old system either.

Most people probably never will write all that well. I use as examples in my editing class real-world texts written by professional, paid journalists, some of which are so appalling as to make even an undergraduate gape. As I quoted Robert Lane Greene yesterday, “Writing is an artificial modern skill that must be taught for years when children are older, and (as the stickler knows) the results often fail to impress.”

I have no particular advice to give to high school English teachers, who are trapped. Save this. If you do give advice on grammar and usage, stop giving bad advice and promulgating zombie rules. If you have a student who shows promise, don’t steer her toward Strunk and White; recommend Joseph Williams’s Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace.

If you are a student, ill-served by a defective education and ambitious to become an accomplished writer, I do have some advice.

Item: You are going to have to do this on your own. Even if you were lucky enough to have a few good teachers, you must make yourself a writer.

Item: Start reading, and stop reading crap. Identify prose stylists whose clarity and effectiveness you admire. Examine them closely. Try to imitate their diction, their syntax, their cadences, their metaphors. John McPhee’s books may impress, and the other New Yorker writers are worth attention. But find the writers who speak to you, in newspapers, magazine, books, and online.

Item: Get yourself informed about language. You need to understand the tools in your toolbox. Garner’s Modern American Usage, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, and other manuals will help you to achieve greater precision.

Item: Write, and revise. Writing is a craft you learn by doing the work. When you have a first draft, put it aside. Come back to it a few hours later, or better, the next day. Manage your embarrassment at how shoddy it is and get to work at tightening it, sharpening the focus, selecting more effective words.

Item: Get advice. Find an outlet other than your private journal. Blog if you have to. Better still, get paid for it. Seek responses from your readers. Find someone whose taste and judgment you trust, and ask him or her to be frank about your work. Your mother may want to frame your every scribble, but you need someone who will tell you what you need to hear to keep you from making an ass of yourself in public.

Item: Settle in for the long term. The headline on this post is one of my favorite lines from Chaucer, “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” The life so short, the craft so long to learn. So get at it.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:54 AM | | Comments (28)
        

Comments

Amen and amen.

Geoff Pullum has a thought about learning how to write (which he expressed as part of a screed against S&W):

"Writing is difficult and demanding; you can learn to get moderately good at it through decades of practice writing millions of words and critiquing what you've written or having others critique it." [http://bit.ly/bCQKtO]

Two things to note:
1. From kindergarten, students should learn that writing is a process and a journey, and one that we never finish.
2 If we only require the bare minimum, that is all we will get. Instead, students should be guided as they find their own inspiring and engaging authors, writers, etc.


Hopefully this little anecdote is somewhat related to the discussion at hand.

I was fortunate to stumble upon a very touching, and instructive little human interest piece on one of the major network nightly newscasts the other evening, which really brought home, for me, (and hopefully, all viewers), the importance of, and long-term personal benefits accruing from, an early sustained 'habit' of reading literature (and poetry, and yes, even good journalism HA!).

This particular true-life story involved a loving, dedicated dad who found himself left virtually high-and-dry on his lonesome w/ raising a very curious, bright daughter----- at the time of the family schism, around 3 or 4 years of age. His wife had apparently opted to just pick up and vamoose........... period.

So, from that sad day forward, this deserted, yet most caring dad made a tacit vow to both himself and his young daughter that each and every night, just before she would nod off to Never-never-land, he would read aloud to her, for just 15 minutes, from various books he felt were both age-appropriate, and that his daughter might really enjoy.

This nightly reading ritual continued for years, almost without fail. Who knows how many great titles he and his daughter had shared over those formative, important growing years?

Well, of course, as little girls are want to do, daddy's little daughter grew up to become a mature, very pretty, smart, and extremely confident adolescent, who not surprisingly garnered exceptionally high marks in high-school, which later translated into acceptance into a higher echelon East Coast university. Predictably, she eventually graduated summa cum laude, head of her class, in, (wouldn't you just know it), English Literature.

(Dad, at one point, revealed his profound sadness at not being able to continue their nightly reading ritual when his daughter had to leave home for college. It had become such an integral part of their bonding process.)

The closing vingnette of the piece showed a aging, snowy-haired, yet still handsome dad, glowing w/ obvious affection and pride, sitting close to his 20-something daughter on his front porch on one of those cool wooden-slatted tandem old-time swing chairs. Ironically, his daughter is reading to her dad from her recently published book chronicling their very special father-and-daughter nightly reading ritual, that clearly set this young woman's almost preordained destiny as a professional writer, but most importantly, a passionate lover of the written word.

What an uplifting, positive story. (I admit to shedding a few tears, w/ this one.)

Sadly, so many of our young people today , especially those in the chronically disadvantaged under-class----rural and inner-city visible minorities and the abject poor (not mutually exclusive demographics, here), day-in-and-day-out face heavily weighted odds against them succeeding in life. It would be a rare, and exceptional parent in these dysfunctional, deprived life circumstances who would have the time, desire, ability, or resolve to read, on a sustained basis, to their kids. It's enough of a daily challenge to just survive.

Sadly, so much wasted talent and human potential. An American tragedy, writ large, and w/ few signs of reversing this societal travesty.

ALEX

P.S.: Prof. McI. I couldn't agree w/ you more on John McPhee, the prolific, veteran essayist for The New Yorker, and masterful penner of always engaging nonfiction tomes, as a most palatable, cogent, educative, very readable scribe.

I'm also partial to the critical writings of the irascible Aussie expat, Robert Hughes, who gained broad exposure as the premier art critic for Time magazine for a number of decades. I highly recommend his 2006 memoir, "Things I Didn't Know", published by Knopf press. It's a remembrance of his long career in print journalism which was nearly fatally terminated in the early 2000s when he almost died in a horrendous highway motorcycle accident. (He was the unfortunate one on the motorcycle.)

I also loved novelist John Updike's 1989 nonfiction book, "Just Looking/ essays on art", also from Knopf. His writing style has that descriptive, detailist flare of his novels, and his keen aesthetic eye is quite remarkable. I recall, as a youngster, Updike had aspirations of becoming a pro cartoonist, and throughout his life kept his hand in humorist drawing, and caricature. Curiously, author Tom Wolfe, of the white suits, and dandyish air, as a kid, also loved to draw in a humorous vein, and in fact released a few books demonstrating his fair-to-middling illustration prowess. (A bit of a renaissance guy. Although I'm sure the original Renaissance man, Leonardo Da Vinci, would eschew those snazzy white threads. Not sure where Da Vinci's sartorial taste lay. Geez, there's that darn "lay/ lie" dichotomy again.HA!)

Re: "Start reading, and stop reading crap."

My 7-year-old son and I just finished reading a very entertaining book: "Ricky Ricotta and the Voodoo Vultures from Venus" by Dav Pilkey. It was mostly a pointless story, but a lot of fun. Do you think this kind of reading is damaging, or is any reading at that age beneficial?

For children, the important thing is to develop the reading habit. So read aloud to them, and let them read what they like. (I got started with comic books, because that was what was readily available.) Just keep introducing them to a range of subjects and authors.

Re: "Start reading, and stop reading crap."

As a 12-year-old Boy Scout many years ago, I completed the requirements for Reading Merit Badge. One of the requirements was to read 20 books. So I polished off 20 Hardy Boys mysteries to meet that requirement. When the day came to meet with the merit badge counselor - a retired school teacher - I dutifully packed up all those Hardy Boys into a brief case and walked over to her house. She said, "So show me the books you've read for the badge." Whereupon I popped open the brief case to show her the 20 Hardy Boys mysteries I had read. "Those aren't books! I'm not counting any of them! Come back to me when you've read real books!"

I still remember how red her face got. I eventually earned the badge, no Hardy Boys included.
K-


Kem,

Hmm......... that fussy merit badge counselor, of old, sure was a bit of a 'sticky wicket' stickler, no?

I suppose if you'd read say 20 books from equally popular, The Adventures of Nancy Drew series, she would likely have had a similar negative reaction, but perhaps have some private judgmental thoughts about your then pre-pubescent sexual orientation, following up w/ an awkward query about whether you'd earned your doll-making badge, yet. (Oh, behave. HA!)

Now I'm quite sure if you had, instead, pulled from you briefcase (hmm...... you didn't have a knapsack?) such 'adult' fare as say Hoboken, New Jersey-born biologist/ pioneering modern day sexologist extraordinaire, Alfred Kinsey's controversial tome, "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male", von Krafft-Ebing's 1886 riveting page-turner, "Psychopathia Sexualis/ A Clinical & Forensic Study", von Leopold Sacher-Masoch's infamous S&M-themed 19th century novel, "Venus in Furs", a passel of erotica from the master of the form, the Marquis de Sade, Anais Nin's steamy "Diary", or "Delta of Venus", or perhaps her life-long buddy, Henry Miller's once scandalous tryptic----- "Plexus", "Nexus" and "Sexus" , I'm quite sure your Boy Scout merit badge counselor would be blushing even more floridly.. But, not out of stifled anger, (her reaction to your fruitless Hardy Boys marathon read), but more from outright embarrassment, seeing that you were clearly a precocious, well-read young lad, but should NOT be reading such" tripe" at such a tender age.......... period.

I realize I've concocted an almost absurd, unreal, totally stretched scenario there, but I'm attempting to use hyperbole to hopefully make a point.

Kem, you REALLY DID like those darn Hardy Boys, didn't you? HA! Can't really blame you. as I recall, they were a pretty cool young sleuthing duo in the eyes of us early 'boomers'.

ALEX

I'm a Nancy Drew girl myself. They had nothing to do with sex, although she did have a boyfriend who occasionally wandered into the story, and a really neat convertible. I reread some of them a few years back, before I wrapped and gave them to my nieces. They reminded me how much I loved reading as a child, and how much I loved reading them. Thinking of how and what I read as a child and then as a young girl makes me feel, as Josephine Tey says, "Cozy in advance." Not much of Mr Miller can be said to do that.


Patricia,

Touché! ......... regarding your last comment about "Mr. Miller"s admittedly 'uncozy' novels. Gritty, and lurid might be more apropos.

Yet, as my little caveat/ self-rejoinder attempted to insinuate, in the 'real' world, I would hardly countenance any young person, under senior high-school level, reading any of those aforementioned 'adult' works I enumerated, let alone the visually graphic, 'blue'-prose-laced literary works of Henry Miller.

I was merely venturing to have a little naughty fun. In no way was I trying to titillate, or much less offend.*

I realize, even in this so-called permissive age, for many 'alleged' adults, dealing w/ the subject of human sexuality, either in its more clinical aspects a la Kinsey, Masters & Johnson, or Von Krafft-Ebing, or it's more creative expression in the visual arts, prose, or poetry going as far back as the classical Greek playwrights like Ovid, or the erotic fresco that adorn the interior ruins of the House of Veti in Pompey, it can still be a touchy, awkward area for open discussion. Enough said.

Patricia, I loved that Josephine Tey quote you cited, "Cozy in advance."

My earliest, fondest memories of reading do conjure up old feelings of contentment, escape, and the special magic of being transported to other worlds, and introduced to new, yet fictional friends. Still love the unique smell and crisp perfection of a brand new hardcover book-----something the newfangled Amazon "Kindle", or the Barnes & Noble "Nook" can never provide.(Hmm......... maybe director John Waters should work on a 'new-book-smell' Smell-o-rama 'app' for these high-tech reading devices.)

I remember my most favorite place to read at home as a kid, namely under the stairs going down into our basement, where my dad had set up a little 'cozy' reading nook of old stacked mattresses, and I could read, in near privacy, to my heart's content. Aah, those were the days.

*Patricia, I apologize, if that earlier "sex" stuff upset you, or freaked you out. That goes for any other bloggers out there who may have been offended, as well.

ALEX

P.S.: Picky, old chappy, where have you been hiding, of late? I'm sure you've taken a gander, or two, at most of those salacious, naughty tomes I highlighted in my earlier commentary. But then again, I may be totally off base, on that score; your taste in literature tending more toward the more chaste, less titillating variety. HA!

I've been out of college, where I studied copy editing, for about a year, so the issues of how we are teaching our children are still very close to me and have left a certain mark.

To the issue of grammar, I didn't learn most of it in school. I learned it from my mother, who took the time to help me with draft after draft of research papers. Teachers helped to a point, and they had high expectations, but it was my mother who taught it.

And I feel for the teachers, because when you have to choose to either teach the students literature or teach the students grammar, hard decisions must be made. And I think claims that "they used to teach it just fine" are wrong because they ignore a changing society.

And a changing society is not bad, though as a copy editor, I do wish it would get a little better at grammar (all LOLs aside).

'The craft so long to lerne'. Well, quite. Maybe the issue here is that the author doesn't feel the years of experience through which she's looking at the students' work. I'm sure the deficits would look tremendous given the lack of practice the students currently have, when compared to a couple of decades or more of a professional writer.

The students will mature, they will read and assimilate, and some of them too will end up criticising the younger generation for not being an experienced writer before they've gained experience.

'The craft so long to lerne'. Well, quite. Maybe the issue here is that the author doesn't feel the years of experience through which she's looking at the students' work. I'm sure the deficits would look tremendous given the lack of practice the students currently have, when compared to a couple of decades or more of a professional writer.

The students will mature, they will read and assimilate, and some of them too will end up criticising the younger generation for not being an experienced writer before they've gained experience.

'The craft so long to lerne'. Well, quite. Maybe the issue here is that the author doesn't feel the years of experience through which she's looking at the students' work. I'm sure the deficits would look tremendous given the lack of practice the students currently have, when compared to a couple of decades or more of a professional writer.

The students will mature, they will read and assimilate, and some of them too will end up criticising the younger generation for not being an experienced writer before they've gained experience.

'The craft so long to lerne'. Well, quite. Maybe the issue here is that the author doesn't feel the years of experience through which she's looking at the students' work. I'm sure the deficits would look tremendous given the lack of practice the students currently have, when compared to a couple of decades or more of a professional writer.

The students will mature, they will read and assimilate, and some of them too will end up criticising the younger generation for not being an experienced writer before they've gained experience.

'The craft so long to lerne'. Well, quite. Maybe the issue here is that the author doesn't feel the years of experience through which she's looking at the students' work. I'm sure the deficits would look tremendous given the lack of practice the students currently have, when compared to a couple of decades or more of a professional writer.

The students will mature, they will read and assimilate, and some of them too will end up criticising the younger generation for not being an experienced writer before they've gained experience.

'The craft so long to lerne'. Well, quite. Maybe the issue here is that the author doesn't feel the years of experience through which she's looking at the students' work. I'm sure the deficits would look tremendous given the lack of practice the students currently have, when compared to a couple of decades or more of a professional writer.

The students will mature, they will read and assimilate, and some of them too will end up criticising the younger generation for not being an experienced writer before they've gained experience.

'The craft so long to lerne'. Well, quite. Maybe the issue here is that the author doesn't feel the years of experience through which she's looking at the students' work. I'm sure the deficits would look tremendous given the lack of practice the students currently have, when compared to a couple of decades or more of a professional writer.

The students will mature, they will read and assimilate, and some of them too will end up criticising the younger generation for not being an experienced writer before they've gained experience.

'The craft so long to lerne'. Well, quite. Maybe the issue here is that the author doesn't feel the years of experience through which she's looking at the students' work. I'm sure the deficits would look tremendous given the lack of practice the students currently have, when compared to a couple of decades or more of a professional writer.

The students will mature, they will read and assimilate, and some of them too will end up criticising the younger generation for not being an experienced writer before they've gained experience.

Well, fighting the captcha system worked out just dandy. Sorry about the multiple posts.

I really did like the Hardy Boys. For a 12YO, they were quick, entertaining reads for lazy boy readers. And, yes, I used my Dad’s old leather briefcase to schlep the books to her house. At the time, I was appalled at her reaction. They looked like books to me and the requirement didn’t specify "No Hardy Boys." I guess once a teacher, always a teacher. She wanted me to have read a variety for the requirement. I was already an avid reader, so 20 more books wasn’t a problem. But her livid "Those aren’t books!" scared the crap out of me.
K-

As a kid in the late '60s, I read every Bobbsey Twins book I could find. Having finished the 10 that were floating around the house, I was excited to discover about 30 more at the library. And then my father unearthed a circa 1925 installment from his childhood; it's public domain now, so you can read along online as the Bobbseys' maid, Dinah, says, and I quote, "Yo' all doan't git none ob de stuff in dish yeah basket 'till lunch time--no, suh!" And THEN I found out that there were brand-new episodes still being produced, with trippy, with-it titles like "The Bobbsey Twins and the Doodlebug Mystery." My mom scoffed at my credulousness regarding author Laura Lee Hope: "If she's still writing them, she must be 150 years old." In addition to introducing me to the words "grandeur," "macabre," "aa," and, yes, "gwine," the series exposed the idea that authorship was a far less monolithic and immutable exercise than I had understood it to be -- and this was probably my first glimmer of awareness about the world of editing.

When my son was younger and just learning to read, I used to get one of my books of Calvin & Hobbes cartoons to read to him. Sometimes I was laughing so hard I could barely read the words aloud.

I too read the Twins Bobbsey, Cherry Ames, Trixi Belden, Honey Bunch and pretty much anything else I could get my grubby kiddy paws on, and my family encouraged it. My brother read the Boys of Hardy, and he turned out alright.I don't know how I jumped from those to Anne Frank's diary at age 11 or 12, but it's like learning to read music: at some point I just could. I love the picture of reading under the staircase. It reminds me of the Poet Under the Staircase sketch by the Pythons. "Hello, I've come to read your Poet!"


P the T,

Hmm........ w/ a cursory Yahoo search I tired, in vain, to find a YouTube video of "The Poet Under the Staircase" Monty Python sketch that you recommended, earlier.

However, in doing my 'research', I stumbled upon another very early poetry-related 'Python' sketch, a mini-mocumentry, of sorts, on the rather obscure, very stingy Highland Scottish poet, Ewan McTeagle, who through much of the piece is seen fretfully trudging o'er hill-and-dale, (or bonnie braes), thru the prickly, golden gorse, the heather, the lichen-covered rocks of the bleak Highland landscape, crook in hand, kilted, w/ scraggly (fake) rusty beard, and jaunty tam. A persistent wee Scottish mist just adds another layer of drear to the whole affair.

Most of McTeague's free-form poetry largely reflects his preoccupation w/ getting-and-spending (mostly his adversity to spending HA!) filthy lucre----highlighting the hackneyed stereotype of the typical tightwad, thrift-conscious Scotsman.

McTeagle's poem titles are hilarious in their abject mundanity, bordering on sheer banality. And there lies the kernel of humor.

Here is just a small sampling of some of the more engaging ones: "Can I Have Fifty Pounds to Mend the Shed?" (Recited by a half-clothed, long-tressed, very young Eric Idle), "Lend Us A Quid", "My New Checkbook Hasn't Arrived Yet", and the unforgettable lyrical ditty, "What's Twenty Quid to the Bloody Midland Bank?" And they say Robbie Burns deserves the moniker, Scotland's Greatest Bard. I respectfully beg to differ........... or was that defer.HA!

John Cleese (who else?) happened to play two key roles in this brief sketch, namely "St. John Limbo/ Poetry Expert", w/ his rapid-fire, slightly effete BBC-ish commentary style, and later a "Highland Spokesman", all decked out in full traditional Highland Scots' regalia, wearing an oversized, flattened-out gigantic tartan tam, military-style dark blazer and sporty kilt. (With gynecologist Michael Palin, stethoscope in hand, under Cleese's kilt, giving him a physical while Cleese is delivering his McTeagle 'crit'.) At one point in his critique he admonished poet McTeagle for not wearing his own McTeagle plaid, accusing him of co-opting a Cameron tartan kilt, no less. The nerve!

Anyhoo Patricia, at least I found something worth a few good laughs, which is pretty much guaranteed w/ those zany Monty Python blokes. Their brand of silly, yet at the same time intelligent humor, never seems to get old.

"And now for something COMPLETELY different."

Wow!

Stop the presses!

Latest Bin Laden update.

Apparently the former most wanted FBI fugitive on the planet had quite the treasure trove of hardcore pornography on those not-so-well-cached 'hard-drives' in his nifty compound---- aside from his nefarious plans to wreck total havoc, mayhem, and mass destruction on what he saw as the infidel-infested Western, non-Muslim world.

Hmm....... one would have thought w/ all those submissive wives of his, randy Osama wouldn't really need any extracurricular 'stimulation', but then again, as they say in the Middle East, 'the porn is always groovier on the other side.' It reads better in Arabic. trust me. (Groan)

ALEX

Alex, ALex, ALex - you really should try a hot milky drink before you write your perorations. Keep looking for the Poet under the Staircase sketch. It's rather charming. Each poet had a speciality, of course, depending upon the temperament of the homeowner. Quelle stitch!

Tell you what, though, how terrible for those teachers to actually have to mark homework. Poor wee things! Did nobody warn them?

That a society may change - for better or worse - should have nothing to do with how well teachers teach material. If you have low expectations you will see no results. And it is certainly no reason to water down what you teach. See how far it has gotten America as a nation.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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