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The awesome English language

Posted: October 15, 2013 10:45 a.m.
Updated: October 16, 2013 5:00 a.m.

The rules for correct grammar usage are many. They, however, are equaled to or exceeded by the exceptions. No one believes me when I tell them I never write without a dictionary and thesaurus by my side; after all, I taught English for many years. One student asked me, “When are we going to do something else except grammar?” I am not sure I consoled her when I replied, “We will soon study literature and composition.” She sighed with relief until I said, “However, grammar plays a part in both of these.” I should have mentioned it is also a major part in conversation. Manipulation of the English language can be surprising.

When I first began teaching, I remember a young boy who remarked, “Hello, who are you?” I replied I was a teacher. He shook his head in disbelief and stated, “You sure don’t look like a teacher.” Even today, I do not know whether that was a compliment or not.

All teachers in Camden years ago had to visit in the homes of each of their students -- after school on their own time. I am sure many parents relished the visits as much as the teachers liked more duties. In fact, although I called and arranged each visit, one parent hid behind the door. Finally, I said, “Ms. ______, I know you are there; I hear you breathing. If you will sign this paper saying I have visited, I will not bother you further.” She signed and passed it back under the door.

At another home that same year, I was greeted as a welcome, anticipated visitor. After the visit, the mother walked me to the door and stated, “I don’t think ____ is going to have any problem in school this year; you ain’t hard to look at.” Little did I think that that particular remark would be my only solace after a particular hectic day or during a boring, time wasting meeting. I would say to myself, “At least you aren’t hard to look at.”

Teachers often cause problems for themselves. One day, when studying a story in which a man struck a woman, I felt I should say, “Of course, none of you young men would do such a thing.” One tall young man who had been seated in a slouched position wearing “shades” but doing his work, replied, “I would.” I smiled and remarked, “Of course you wouldn’t.” He stood and moved toward me. I, holding my distance and continuing to smile, was surprised, maybe stunned to hear him ask, “What would you do if someone hit you?” What went through my head was “touch me and you die,” a very foolish challenge. Instead, I said, “Oh, I’d hope he lived a long and healthy life.” Shocked, he quizzed, “You would?” “Yes,” I retorted, still smiling. His last question was, “Why?” Still standing where I had been and smiling, I finished the confrontation by remarking, “Because he will support me as long as he lives.” The incident was never reported, and he became one of my champions.

Years went by, and I established a reputation. Therefore, I was unprepared to have a student behave in an unacceptable manner. Perhaps he was a transfer or a new pupil. I did not have to do anything. Another student did it for me when he said, “You better leave her along; she just looks sweet.” Not too long after this incident, an individual, not my student, disrupted classes on my hall. When I told him to stop and went after him, he ran. I heard one of my students, a boy on probation before going into juvenile detention, talking to him. I listened, possibly thinking of a quite different conversation. What the boy on probation said was, “You’d better go back. She’s as fair as she can be, but she’ll throw the book at you if you challenge her.” I tiptoed back and was seated at my desk when the boy returned, knocked on my door and said he was sorry. I just told him not to do it again and certainly did not report it. My student had saved me the trouble and upheld my reputation.

Teachers once received their lists of students on paper. Another teacher asked to see mine. When I showed it to her, she said, “Oh, he fights.” I said, “I have never had a fight in my classroom and don’t intend to start now.” She replied, “You will this year.” Alerted, I quickly reacted when two students, who had been in an altercation in another area, stood to continue their fight. I told both of them to be seated. The one about whom I had been warned, behind my back, started to land a blow. I just held up a hand and gestured toward his seat. When he sat, I bent close to him, touched his desk, and ended the confrontation by saying, “I have heard of you; have you heard of me?” Both the individuals got the message, and I still have not had a fight in my room.

Perhaps the most annoying of the verbal challenges concerned the “half-truths.” Students are excellent manipulators using this tool. For example, one girl said I have her an “F” on her term paper because she typed it. Now, she might have received an “F,” but not for typing. Yet another student, now a grown man, said I failed him, giving him a “69” and keeping him from getting a diploma. A teacher does not give or withhold points. He or she simply keeps records, certainly not failing for a “69.”

Parents can be as much or more trouble than their children. I remember one mother (always the mother when boys are concerned) who wanted a conference. I told her I would be glad to see her before school, after school or at lunch (although I served as secretary to accommodate parents and teachers). She said, “Oh, no, I work.” Evidently, she thought I didn’t, although her son would have been chore enough for anyone. As I remember, I came in on Saturday, but did ask that she bring her son so there would be no misunderstanding. Another mother would drive her son to the back door of the school, leave him, and he would go out the front door. Her solution was to attend every class with him every day until the end of his senior year, her size making the effort even more demanding. I think DSS would just have had to deal with me. Today, some parents want a daily report on behavior of their children, something else taking up time. Actually, I believe discipline should occur in the home, not delegated to some outside source.

People’s word choices sometimes shock me. Not too long after my husband’s death, an acquaintance expressed her sympathy and then asked, “Did Bob leave you well off, or will have to marry again or go back to work?” I smiled and said, “Of the two choices you offer me, I’m sure I would prefer going back to work,” not really answering her question.

The English language can bring warmth and memories. It can even make someone angry or sad. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me” is not always true. A physical blow usually heals; a verbal one may not.

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