Sometimes when I think about grammar and the rules of writing, I scan in my memory banks on lessons learned long ago from my teachers. Occasionally, I get stuck on a scene from 4th grade and my teacher, whom I’ll just identify as Mrs. A.
It’s useful, I think, to review how these experiences from years ago shape our current-day practices. See if this story reminds you of anything that happened to you during your school years:
Cursed in Cursive
Until that point in my education, I assumed that teachers typically liked – or at least tolerated — kids. Mrs. A, on the other hand, apparently had concluded that all the kids in her class were guilty of crimes. Her job, as she saw it, was to figure out what those crimes were and prosecute us mercilessly under the fluorescent lights of Horace Mann Elementary School.
My trial occurred during a lesson in cursive. This subject wasn’t going well for me. Mrs. A was not at all happy that I used my LEFT HAND to write and that I didn’t hold my pen like the right-handed kids did.
On the day of my offense, she’d shown us how we were to create an “8”: Start up here, loop to the left, now back to the right and down, across to the left again, now up to the right, and connect to where you started.
“Huh,” I thought. “How ‘bout I just stack one circle on another?”
After I handed in my work, Mrs. A. – in front of the entire class — DEMANDED I MADE AN IMMEDIATE APPEARANCE AT HER DESK. She addressed me as if I had just violated the Geneva Convention International Agreement On How to Make An ‘8.’ Imprisonment, I was sure, was imminent.
“Were you paying attention?!” she thundered. “This IS NOT how it is done!”
After the public berating, I slunk back to my desk. But the thought lingered:
“Maybe that’s not how it’s supposed to be done, but you could tell it was an “8,” right, Mrs. A.? If I tried to follow YOUR way, bending my hand as if I were right-handed, not letting my palm touch the paper, etc., I’d create something resembling an amoeba wearing a tight belt.”
Don’t Let The Terrorist Teachers Win
Decades later, that encounter is still seared in my brain. The good thing is that I had a lot of other teachers who counteracted Mrs. A. Some praised me. The best of them offered criticism that helped me improve and do the task required of a writer: communicate effectively with readers.
But I can’t help but think that many others had teachers like Mrs. A. who were more than eager to enforce sometimes-pointless rules on their students, and the students grew up to resent the idea of structure and logic in writing. They rejected not just the equivalent of the “Make An ‘8’ Like THIS” lesson, but lessons on spelling and punctuation and any number of other fundamentals.
And then again, there were probably students who identified with their tormentors and passed on the harsh, unrelenting rules of grammar, cursive and any number of other subjects.
Now, as I try to think about weighing in on matters of grammar and writing, I try to make sure I’m not channeling Mrs. A.’s voice of “That’s not the right way of doing it.” Sometimes, the “right” way no longer makes sense, if it ever did. Other times, the old rules are solid and useful.
Each of us needs to quiet the voices that aren’t helpful and amplify those that are. As I write future posts, I’ll try to identify rules that I think are just cruel to enforce now and suggest we perhaps can forget about them.
And for any of you kids out there, I think it’s perfectly fine to make an “8” like it’s two-thirds of a snowman. The guards have been called off.
Did this resonate with anything that happened to you in school? Please share in the comments or send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.