RAMBLINGS • Pardon My Labor Day Grammar

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Labor Day passed for another year; this time I have a better understanding of myself, so I saw the celebration through older but wiser eyes than previously.

Perhaps that’s the best reason for taking up space on this earth for so long; every day I live presents an opportunity to filter the experiences and emotions of today through the screens of yesterday and for yesteryear. As I reflect, I can explain at least some of today based on both personal and cultural history.

When I was a pup, Labor Day meant school would soon begin, and that wasn’t a happy thought because I was not one who treasured time spent in a classroom. When I began my teaching career, school generally began a week prior to Labor Day, so the holiday became a semi-welcome interruption, not as welcome as before, perhaps because I was dishing out the punishment, not absorbing it. In my personal evolution, I was beginning to see value of (rather than the inconvenience of) educating the masses.

I spent my most formative years as a laborer on farms in rural Indiana County, PA, including my father’s. I’ve thought of that often in the last three months. Dale Boyd and I talked briefly of that after a recent Rambling when I mentioned time spent with a scoop behind a row of stanchioned cows. He said it was an experience shared, though he was in rural Hillsboro at least three states west of where I lived. Then I chatted with “Saint Bob” Fuehne’s brother Ben during Bob’s 80th birthday party on July 31. The Fuehnes grew up in Clinton County on a dairy farm. Bob was the oldest of seven siblings (three boys, a sister, and then three more boys.) Ben, who claimed Bob was hard to find when work had to be done but quick to respond to the dinner bell, was someone with whom I was instantly comfortable, as is Dale, because we had common experiences growing up. Sweat wasn’t a mother of equity then; it was a necessity for survival. I now understand why I’m more comfortable with men who have had blisters on their hands than I am with those who would rather avoid than perform physical labor. My father, if he were alive today, would chide me for my relatively soft hands.

I also realize how much our culture has changed. We who are in our 60s, 70s, and 80s developed a work ethic as we grew that is now often dismissed as irrelevant because we prefer the old ways from the old days. I would rather use an ax than a chain saw, a sickle than an electric trimmer, a sledge hammer rather than a jack hammer. I find electronics to be invasive. Part of that is my “John Henry” mentality (remember John Henry of folksong lore–he raced against a steam engine as he used hand tools to dig a tunnel through a mountain in West Virginia to lay railroad tracks. He lost, perhaps died in the attempt, but he was immortalized in song, “John Henry was a steel-driven man, Lahd, Lahd; John Henry was a steel driving man.” He had been a hero to me ever since I first heard the song.

Am I like him? I hope so. I don’t want to be overwhelmed by any task in front of me. At times stomping out ignorance of our language in small-town America seemed more daunting than digging a tunnel through a mountain. To my knowledge, no one teaches grammar on the rules for comma usage in local schools. Some colleges don’t teach them either; perhaps none because it is discouraged. When I was at Blackburn, a fellow student, Sue Sharp, asked if I’d take a seminar from a Carlinville High teacher about teaching grammar, since, she said, “We’ll have to teach it soon, and none of us (English majors) have any idea as to how to teach it.” This was in the late 1960s. I declined because I didn’t intend to teach after college.

Sue was right, of course, but I haven’t seen her since graduation to tell her. I think she taught in the Belleville area, but I’m not sure. I didn’t associate much with either Blackburn grads or English teachers once I had a degree in hand. I probably didn’t do a good job with grammar my first two years as a teacher at HHS, but Mrs. Evans was there to take up the slack when my freshmen became sophomores. I did have literature down pat, though I suppose I had more literature classes on my transcript than most people because of my circuitous route to my degree.

During the middle of my second year at HHS, Miss Smith became Mrs. Blankenship and Mrs. Hewitt joined the English department. That summer Mrs. Hewitt called and asked if she could see my syllabus for English I, (grammar.) My response was to sit down and construct a syllabus; that immediately made me a better grammar teacher. I discovered the material that had to be covered could be divided into eight two-week sections, and if we began learning about nouns as parts of speech, noun clauses were much easier to understand when the writ about clauses appeared a month or so later. Contrary to popular opinion, the English language is logical if taught methodically.

Several summers later, Dr. Greg Springer in his role as head of the Regional Education Office suggested I enroll in the Mississippi River Valley writing project at SIUE. I was hesitant until he mentioned I’d receive a stipend for attending; getting paid to go to school was more in line with my personal philosophies than paying to go had been.

There I became embattled with a Dr. LaToy of the SIUE staff and with George Shea, a department head at one of the Belleville high schools. Moderators of the proceedings, both were against teaching grammar to high school students. Shea said parsing sentences did no one any good; LaToy was simply opposed to any introduction of grammar.

My point invariably in all the debates we invariably had in class was that grammar and algebra are the two ways high school teachers have of teaching critical thinking skills to their clientele; if the subject of a sentence had to be a noun connected to a verb, then by logic “Was a big gigantic mess.’ can’t be a sentence even if it starts with a capital letter and ends with a period. Many of us have undiscovered critical thinking skills that thinking like a grammarian would uncover. Sadly, those without critical thinking skills at all are often drawn to the English classroom to teach. I think to not teach grammar in high school (and college) students does them a great disservice.

I passed the course because I could write as well or better than anyone in the room, but I discovered later to my chagrin that students entering my LLCC classes from area high schools had little formal knowledge of grammar. If they had been taught well, they wouldn’t have had bewildered expressions when I’d say, “That is I” rather than “That is me.” It’s an easy mistake to eliminate if one understands pronoun cases, but that is a knowledge that comes only if one is taught.

How did I handle the grammar problems at LLCC? I taught grammar principles as part of the composition process, including comma clinics. The students seemed to appreciate those efforts, even though the Composition Department on campus may have disapproved had I told them what I was about. I was seldom visited by a department supervisor (it was a long drive down from Springfield, and I never saw anyone I taught for LLCC at Graham. I taught what I knew the students would need to know wherever their studies would take them).

I grew up in a backwater-as-far-as-speaking-correctly geographic area was concerned, so I was shocked when teachers pointed out how educated people speak. I was a junior in high school before I knew chimney wasn’t pronounced as chimbley and that noses could be yellow, not yeller. My mountain to climb language-wise was high.

Once I knew, though, I knew. I’ve transformed over the years from me who lection made the learned grimace to one who does the grimacing. I fear I’m tiresome when I proofread county board material (Red asked the other night at a planning commission meeting if a comma I suggested go in the wind siting ordinance would make a legal difference; it could, and I could have given him the reason it was needed had we had the time), but if a sentence is incorrect in any way, I want to correct it.

In keeping with Labor Day, it’s a labor of love.

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