Tools of the Trade

I can still remember walking through the door of my eighth grade classroom for English, and Mrs. Meese would be sitting behind the piano, pounding out a song.  She taught music and choir, too.  And she was passionate about both.  Come to think of it, she was passionate about everything.  She had a deep voice and a loud laugh.  And I loved her.  Thank the heavens for the Mrs. Meeses of this world!  Great teachers inspire great things.  The planets smiled on me when they sent her into my life.  Often, she’d start diagramming sentences and break into song.  She was unpredictable and awesome—and if you didn’t know grammar when you left her English class, you didn’t want to.

For one nine week period, our grades hinged on memorizing 300 lines of poetry and reciting it.  My mother had an old, spiral notebook filled with handwritten poems–her favorites that she’d copied from books.  I chose most of my readings from those.
I can still envision “The House on the Hill,” and I remember the punch line from Whittier’s Maud Muller: “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’”  My favorite memory is making Mrs. Meese laugh by reciting the poem “Elsie Was a Glow Worm.”  But I learned more from that nine weeks than 300 lines of poetry.  I learned the rhythm and cadence of words, the importance of word choice—how one, specific word is worth a dozen, vague ones, and how a few, powerful words an entire story can make.  I’ll never be brilliant at poetry, but I learned to appreciate it.

The other thing Mrs. Meese taught me was grammar.  Once a week, she wrote long, involved sentences on the chalkboard and it was our job to diagram them.  Bless teachers who still diagram sentences.  You’re forced to know how each and every word works with others to form a thought.  I’ve long since forgotten the labels that I learned—articles, gerunds, and prepositions have blurred into matters of habit, but those labels made me
aware of where to put commas (which are becoming passe’, but I still adore and use abundantly) and when to use capitals or dashes or exclamation points.  All essentials to building words into stories.

I once had a friend who told me, “Commas confuse me.  I just write a page and then sprinkle them in.”  That appalled me.  How can you be a writer if you don’t understand most of your tools?  It would be like making a cake with no measuring cups or spoons.  You just guess.  I’m not saying that writers don’t make mistakes.  Every morning before I start writing a new scene, I polish the pages I wrote the day before.  And I always catch something I messed up.  A word misspelled.  A dangling participle.  A pronoun gone astray.  You can never be too careful.  A scene from one of the PBS Lewis and Hathaway mysteries comes to mind.  I’m a huge fan of the twosome, and I can’t remember which show it was in, but Lewis is driving and they pass a handwritten sign.  Hathaway grimaces, and Lewis says, “I know.  It bothers you.”  Hathaway replies, “I like apostrophes.”  Because whoever wrote the sign failed to use one.  I feel like that.  I like correct grammar.

When I completely finish whatever manuscript I’m working on, I go over it again.  Then I give it to a long time friend, Ann W, who copy edits with zeal.  And she always finds more that I did wrong.  I have a weakness when it comes to hyphens and compound words.  I put words together that shouldn’t be and separate words that are one.  I’m doing better on past perfect verbs.  All that I’m saying is that even when I make a real effort to complete a clean, mistake proof manuscript, it’s impossible.  If you don’t make an effort, guess what?  And for me, a page filled with small, grammatical errors is sloppy writing.  It’s a sign you don’t care.  Or that you never had a Mrs. Meese in your life.  You need one.




2 thoughts on “Tools of the Trade

  1. Your Mrs. Meese was a treasure. And how fortunate you were to have encountered a teacher who clearly loved to teach. My Mrs. Meese was Mrs. Littlejohn, a woman who also also knew how to teach and kept her sense of humor at the ready.. She was a rather heavy-set woman of perhaps fifty with a great big, booming voice. If she sent you to the blackboard to diagram a sentence you didn’t much mind if you got it wrong. She was famous for that booming voice and
    “W-R-O-N-G!” echoed not only off the walls of her classroom but up and down the halls as well. And everybody laughed–not at you, but at Mrs. Littlejohn. She loved belting out that word and she made mistakes fun. There was no shame in a mistake. According to Mrs. Littlejohn it was a tool for learning. God bless good teachers, especially the ones with a sense of humor..

    I read somewhere last week that the U.S. now ranks 23rd in the world in math and 30-something in science. English grammar wasn’t mentioned but I suppose the stats are low there as well. I wonder if diagraming sentences is still taught these days?


    1. Tyler and Nathan’s second grade teacher taught diagramming, but he was a jewel of a teacher, too. Nate, being his squirmy, can’t sit still self, spent many a recess inside with him–a male teacher in elementary–heaven. Nate copied lots of pages in the dictionary and has a vocabulary that’s awesome now. Thing is, I think Nate liked spending that time with Mr. Springer. There are still lots of good teachers, but they have a tough job now. It’s hard work trying to make kids learn. Most of them resist as much as possible. But people are finally really looking at our educational system. Once it’s important to them (and it should be a priority), they’ll find solutions. But it’s NOT teacher bashing. The teachers have been on the forefront of a losing battle for way too long. I don’t think teaching to pass tests is the solution. It’s time to send in reinforcements and new ideas.


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