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Goodbye, Laura Jean…

Posted: June 6, 2014 9:33 a.m.
Updated: June 9, 2014 5:00 a.m.

“You know you’re going to write my obituary.”

Having known Laura Jean Pruett for 30 odd years, I was used to tall orders and offbeat remarks from the woman, but that one, made at some random moment nearly a decade ago, was a little taller and a lot odder than usual. In fact, if it weren’t for my familiarity with her wonky sense of humor, I probably would have instantly morphed into what my good friend Frank Lee Johnson calls the classic Carson Stare.

For the record, it’s Jean Pruett’s fault that I write for a living. No one ever instilled a greater love of the language in me than she did and I thank her and God every day for that.

Even so, the conversation was still a wee bit awkward.

 “Um, well, I hope not for some time,” I finally said. “Besides, you’re too mean to die, anyway.”

Her eyes crinkled, the corners of her mouth twisted into the familiar pixie grin, the one that said, “You’re pretty funny, kid, but the subject is closed.” The last time I had seen it was the day she informed me that she might write my obituary after I ran a picture in the paper of her she considered less than flattering.

The time before that was the day she told me I would be moving up to Group I English -- the most challenging and difficult section in Camden High’s English Department curriculum. Even back then, I had slightly less ambition than a two-toed sloth, so this news did not overjoy me. Desperately, I appealed to my parents.

“You mean you think you have a side to the story?”  

Alas, back in the Pleistocene era during which my sophomore year in high school occurred, such egregious calumny was commonplace among teachers and parents. Worse, they were too smart for simple divide and conquer tactics and too tough for either the endless whine or the silent treatment.

As it turned out, this was one of the most well-placed kicks to my backside -- what Mrs. Pruett referred to as one’s Gluteus Maximus -- I would ever receive. I always liked to read and write; this was my chance to largely do nothing but read and write.  

It wasn’t easy, thank God.

She was a merciless editor, waging her never-ending war against dangling participles, split infinitives, and her age old enemy, the comma splice.

She also possessed one of the most discerning B.S. meters on the entire planet. One could attempt to pad a term paper with meaningless, passive-voiced fluff, make a surreptitious page number transition, or dance around a given unstudied topic at one’s own peril.

I can still hear her lacerating some unfortunate’s all-night, last minute attempt at literary greatness.

“He thought in his mind?” she read aloud from a woefully sub-par theme -- probably written five minutes before class -- her smile a guillotine draped in fresh flowers. “Where else would he think? His Gluteus Maximus?”

She was also famous for her life lessons, which she would frequently interject somewhere between, say, Romeo and Juliet and dangling participles. Always spot-on and hilarious, she expounded on everything from teen pregnancy to that land of milk and honey to which only higher education could provide access.

“Can you get a job for $2 an hour scrubbing commodes if you flunk high school? Yes!” she would exhort. “Can you ever do any better? No!”

Come to think of it, it’s likely that Romeo, Juliet, and dangling participles inspired some of those short missives regarding teen pregnancy.

In other words, pass English or start getting used to that bathroom attendant career she insisted awaited every high school drop-out on the planet.

While she loved Chaucer, double entendre, and the occasional naughty joke, she deplored coarse and vulgar. Some of her observations, say, on teen lovers making out in the parking lot during lunch were legendary.

“Why don’t you just charge admission, like the Drive-In theater does,” she would say, acid dripping from every syllable.

But don’t think for a minute she was anything other than loving. Her sense of humor was wry, offbeat, occasionally racy -- her story about how the little angel got to the top of the Christmas Tree immediately comes to mind -- her commentary rapier-like, but her unwavering love of her job and the wholehearted delight she took in her students radiated from her very being. We were fortunate to be her students, but she made it clear she believed she was far more fortunate to be our teacher. When she received her doctorate in about 1981 or so, a couple of my fellow classmates and I commemorated the occasion by presenting her with a Piled Higher and Deeper degree -- delicately etched on a roll of toilet paper lovingly chosen from the vast array of diploma material available in the downstairs bathroom.

I think she kept it until her retirement, although granted, it may have been mounted on a TP dispenser with a sign that said “In case of emergency break glass” or more likely  “Jim Tatum Columns: Help Yourself.”

Alas, the time has come for me to complete this last assignment of hers and just like the old days I am running a little late. So just like the old days, I will hope to get a chuckle or two out of her but I’m likely to get dinged on my final grade for being late.

So good bye, Laura Jean -- although you definitely were no candle in the wind -- from the kid trying to hide in the back row.

And thanks so much for being the one who put a pen, rather than a commode brush, in my hand.


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