Sunday, June 27, 2010

Can You Remember Your 8th Grade English Teacher?

I'm chopping romaine lettuce this morning, and all of a sudden, I'm back in 8th grade.  It's 1988.  My teacher, Mrs. Guiles, tells the class:  "You know you are in a nice restaurant when you don't have to use a knife to eat your salad.  You want to eat at restaurants that bother to make each piece of salad bite size."  We nod, imagining fine dining and the lives we would lead as adults.

I cut the romaine leaf down the spine lengthwise and then cut each side into small pieces.  Mrs. Guiles has been gone for several years.  But as I methodically cut the lettuce, I can hear her voice and see her pacing around my English class like it happened that morning.

It was English.  We were supposed to be reading books and writing--not learning what makes a good salad.  

It wasn't just salad.   She taught us many random tidbits that were supposed to help us live well.  For example, she made us stand up when an adult walked into the room.  What did that have to do with writing?

"It shows respect.  You will honor your elders.  It's the right thing to do."  Every time anybody walked in the room--a secretary, another teacher, someone's parent--we rose from out seats, quickly and quietly. 

Salads?  Rising from our seats? 

"And you must learn the art of the beautifully composed thank-you note."  She set the scene:  We had just returned from a visit to New England.  A fine family had invited us to dinner, and we dined (on perfectly sized lettuce).  Now, we must write a thank-you note.   It had to radiate.  It had to merit framing.  I imagined that one day, I'd visit some family far away and write the sort of thank-you notes she described.  

"Include something so very specific, so very vivid.  Tell what you loved about your hostess and the accommodations!  Mention a lovely dish!"  She'd prance around the room.  She was a tiny woman who made flourishes in the air with her hands. 

And that thank-you note?  It had to be perfect.  She was impossible! 

We had no excuse.  All year, we had to recite, from memory, lists of linking verbs and prepositions.  She was mean and horrible.  We all talked about how much we resented her.  We didn't sign up for that kind of torture.

How dare she insist we know everything about grammar as explained in a dusty red textbook more suited for college students?   Who or whom?  She or her?  Comma or semi-colon?  We could punctuate any sentence she wrote on the board, while, mid-punctuation, we rose to greet an elder who walked into the room. And then we'd return to our seats to engage in the lost art of sentence diagramming. 

Orderly sentences mingled with orderly living.  It was infrastructure--those commas, those little symbols we used to designate types of conjunctions, those ways we talked about verbs--to build our lives upon.  And while things were falling apart in 1988--AIDS, Missile Defense, the Iran-Contra scandal, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the war on drugs--I felt fear that a child shouldn't. 

But I didn't feel that way in English class.  Everything was manageable, predictable, and right when contained within those commas and parentheses.

Try me; I knew what to do with that sentence.  Everything else was up in the air, but I knew in the depths of my soul that the comma would make the meaning right. 

I'm chopping lettuce, thanking God for that woman who set my life on a trajectory it hasn't since left:  grammar, writing, and living with flair.


JoAnn Foley-DeFiore said...

Yes, I can remember my 8th grade English teacher and I know my big sis does too She was Ms. O'Donnell, the elder one. Her younger sister taught 4th grade. She was a genius with grammar and made sure that we were too.
We loved her!

auntie said...

I wish there were more people like Mrs. Guiles - those little niceties are the sorts of things that are missing from life these days. And her comment about the lettuce - I think of that same thing EVERY TIME I eat a salad where the pieces of lettuce are bigger than my hand! How on earth is a civilized person supposed to eat such a thing??

Karin said...

Heather, this is the first time I've read your blog. This post really resonates with me - beautiful!

Manya said...

I was still relatively new to my school in 8th grade (as your husband probably remembers bidding me adieu halfway thru 7th) So Mrs. Ondrusek became one of my very best friends. She knew which boys I liked and which girls made me cry and gave me a place to hide during lunch when I just couldn't bear the drama. She once told me the older I got, the faster the years would fly, faster than I could fathom. Isn't that the truth? I think she intended it as a consolation for a teen who never thought the dreadful school year would end. Now I wish the world would slow down a little.

Mrs. Ondrusek has since retired, but I still occasionally stop by her house when I go home. If I ever leave journalism, I'd love to land in an 8th grade classroom and create a similar refuge for some poor girl suffering through 13.

I'm going to write to Mrs. O now. Sigh. Thanks, Heather!