A lesson learned


This week’s Daily Post Writing Challenge is focused on grammar, specifically about using the active rather than the passive voice.   While this issue of voice vexes some writers, I do not find to be a writing hurdle.  The DP challenge isn’t to write about the active voice, but to be sure to use the active voice.  The challenge reminded me of a time when I learned about  a grammar problem that I didn’t even realize was an issue until I had it called out in a memorable manner.   You can find other entries into the WP Daily Post Writing Challenge here.  
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Over 30 years later, I still remember, as if it occurred yesterday, the humiliation of having my first composition read aloud by the exacting English professor.  I know the sentence that caused my face to burn bright red and made me wish that the floor would open wide and swallow me up, ejecting me forever from the English building.  I surely didn’t belong there.

Filled with pigeons, people roamed in Trafalgar Square.  

I had been warned that Dr. H was scary — scary looking and scary acting.

“She’s exacting.  Never be late to her class.  But I don’t know about scary looking.  She looks and sounds just like Katherine Hepburn!” one of my friends said.

“Katherine Hepburn playing the Wicked Witch of the West” another friend replied.  “Have you seen her riding that bike to campus?  If she saw Toto, she’d have him in the basket in no time flat!”

The snotty girl from my semester abroad in London was in the class on the first day.  I knew I wasn’t in Kansas, but Kansas wasn’t where I wanted to be.

Why on earth are you taking Advanced Composition?  Aren’t you a Journalism major? she said with her little nose crinkled into the air as if my mere presence had tainted the hallowed grounds of the third floor of the building.

I thought it would be interesting.   Maybe I’ll be an English major.  I searched her expression to see if I raised a few notches in her estimation.  The punk-rock chick seated nearby, who I would later find out was my former boyfriend’s roommate — and later, after I had rejected the opportunity to make her an ally, would find out she was a lesbian — looked at both of us and let out a slightly audible but clearly disdainful snicker.  I was never sure who she was snickering at:  the uppity preppy co-ed whose destiny was to be a Wall Street lawyer (or the lawyer’s wife, I don’t recall) or the naive girl who didn’t have much confidence in anything she dared do or dream.

The first assigned composition was an easy task:  describe a town or city that you know well.   I knew little about the city where I had spent most of my life, only the suburban area near my parents’ home and my school.   I didn’t want to waste my words on the nearby cornfields or the big new mall out by the highway.  But, having just returned from a semester in London, I knew that I could write passionately about the city.  I even knew, before I began, how I would end it:  with Jonson’s famous quote When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.   I had no idea at the time that I was a cliché, much less that I would write several in my first essays.

For nearly a week I struggled with the assignment.  I re-read my journals and studied my photographs.  I could close my eyes and walk down Edgeware Road from Warrington Circle towards the Marble Arch, recalling each block.  I retraced my route to the Tate Gallery where I took an art class each week and often sat for hours, mesmerized by paintings by Blake.  The paintings still burned bright, like his Tyger, in my memory.  I struggled to write all of the details, to make London known to the reader, but it was a worthwhile struggle.  I thought I was like Elohim over Adam, creating a masterpiece of the English Department.  I proudly turned in the essay just before the deadline.

I did not expect that the essays would be read in their entirety to the class.  That painful exercise took several sessions.  There was no jockeying for position, no volunteering to have your essay read.   Like my classmates, I searched for an order to the essays.  Alphabetical?  By grade?  Were the A‘s first — or the F‘s?  Although no names were spoken,  all the students knew the author of each composition by a few furtive glances around the room.

Finally, mine was read.  Had Dr. H been saving the best for last?  Did this mean that I received an A?   She began:

London.  She looked around the room, snapping a rubber band at her wrist.  What an interesting title, she said dryly. 

I winced.

The first paragraph was read while my brain blurred.  I tried not to give away the authorship.  Sweat gathered along my hairline.  And then came the bolt of lighting that zapped me out of my seat:

Filled with pigeons, people roamed in Trafalgar Square.  

Oh my, Dr. H said in her quavering Kate Hepburn voice.  Did they have squab for lunch?  She laughed for the first time that semester at her joke while I fought back tears.

What the hell is squab? I wrote in my invisible notebook, too embarrassed to be seen writing a note on paper.

Dr. H continued with a brief statement of the unacceptable nature of dangling modifiers.  As if that were needed.

I have been aware of modifiers at the beginning of sentences ever since that day. Modifying clauses elsewhere in a sentence make my internal grammarian sit up and pay attention as well.  I somehow survived the entire semester, passing with an A and would take two more classes from Dr. H before I graduated.

I owe much to the classes I took from her.  One lesson was to never intimidate or humiliate someone eager to learn.  Another was to be sensitive to jokes at the expense of a student.  But there were positive lessons as well.  If it weren’t for a brief five-week summer class she taught, I never would have read and fallen in love with Moby-Dick.  I’ve never seen squab on a menu or a pigeon-filled plaza without thinking about her with a smile.  And, I’m a better writer because of her — even if like all writers I occasionally make a grammatical mistake here or there. Rarely do those mistake involve dangling modifiers.

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5 responses to “A lesson learned

  1. Ouch, I need to check up on dangling modifiers . . .

  2. Wonderful post! I had a professor who hurt me deeply as well, and it discouraged my writing for decades. I was writing in my journal recently and his comments surfaced once again, as did all the ancient hurt. When I used the internet to learn what had happened to him, I uncovered a story that was so sad… I felt sorry for him, for losses he’d experienced, for the ways we could have been lifelong friends, had he not directed what I think may have been his own frustrations at my too-young ego. I learned, too, that shame and embarrassment as teaching techniques are abusive and potentially life-changing, but also say more about the teacher than the student…wish I would have been wise enough to parse this experience and tease out the lessons 37 years ago…

    Bravo for you and your abilities to write daily, grammatically, and well!

    • If only we could learn all those valuable lessons when we were younger. I wouldn’t say that this teacher thwarted me in any way, in part because everyone in the class was treated in much the same way. But I do agree that it wasn’t the best manner. In any sort of critique session, one must be sensitive to the fact that those presenting their work have really put effort into it.

      On the other hand, it can be just as cruel to not tell someone when their work is substandard. I took an online fiction writing course last year and while there was a wide range of skill, there was one person whose work was worse than substandard — very poor grammar, with almost every sentence having some sort of error. Of course I have no idea what the instructor communicated to this student privately, but her public comments barely even addressed the issues. It seemed to me that this lessened her comments on my work and others. Couldn’t help but thinking “What isn’t she stating”.

      Being positive and encouraging can be done while criticizing but you can go too far either way — overly praising or too caustically sarcastic.

  3. Great post! Perfect for this challenge!