Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The importance of GRAMMAR and SPELLING; or, "Thank you, Mrs. Doyle/Mrs. Roberson/Mrs. Curry"

Much is made these days of the idea that "Proper grammar and spelling are no longer important; the communication of the idea is the primary concern."

While communication of the idea is, in fact, very important, I categorically reject the idea that grammar and spelling are not.

Case in point:

This last Monday, I had a job interview (hold your breath and pray for it, kids, I need this one and it's a good one) in Dallas.

I got myself all spiffed up in my navy pinstripe suit, starched white shirt, muted red tie (never go wrong with good ol red, white, and blue). Shoes brightly shined, resume professionally printed on bond paper; references at hand; shoes matched belt matched portfolio. Sterling/gold Parker pen. Citizen watch, no other jewelry. Hair freshly cut and styled. Smile pasted on face. I was ready.

Or so I thought! I arrived in the (beautiful) north Dallas high rise office the requisite 10 minutes early, gave my name to the receptionist, and waited. Out came the very sweet HR lady, who greeted me and conducted me to a small conference room.

She offered me refreshment, which I politely declined. She took my (previously Fed-X'd and completed) application and a fresh copy of my resume, and turned to leave. "Before we go on, we have one additional piece of paperwork for you to complete," she said. She placed a single sheet of paper in front of me. "I'll be back in about 10 minutes or so."

The piece of paper had the company logo at the top and a short, single paragraph; the rest of the page was blank. The paragraph stated, "Thank you for your interest in (Big Insurance Company). In the space provided below, please tell us in your own words why you think you are the best candidate for our available position. You may not use more than the space below, but you must use all of the space provided. You have 10 minutes."

So, I wrote a short essay outlining my various talents, training, and experience; I had an introduction, body, and conclusion. I did not vary the paragraphs' beginning, and I did start paragraphs with "I". Usually bad form, but I was using them as "bullet points"--and a job interview is no time to be shy; it IS all about you! They don't want to discuss the weather.

I finished in space, on time, and with no errors. Frankly, I thought it was a pretty good little essay.

Now, here are the REASONS I was able to do that:

Mrs. Claudia Doyle, Glenview Elementary, Ft. Worth, Texas.

Mrs. Doyle was 6 feet tall, wore no makeup, and had her hair done up in a bun with a pencil through it. Everyone was terrified of her. She was, frankly, mean as hell. She had a ruler, one of those big thick jobs; she walked around the room and called people out, and if you didn't have the right answer, she was not shy at all about applying the ruler smartly to whichever part of your anatomy was within her considerable reach. She forced us to diagram sentences on the blackboard, and subjected us to harsh criticism and ridicule if we made errors. Offenders got to put their noses in a circle on the blackboard. You did everything in your power to avoid running afoul of Mrs. Doyle. If you had to study ALL NIGHT (and yes, that class---6th grade English---was the first time I pulled "allnighters"---though not the last...), you did so because you did not want to screw up on some arcane point of the diagram of a particularly difficult sentence.

Thanks to Mrs. Doyle, I can read and write the English language. I can never repay her, ever. The gift she gave me was priceless. (I can still diagram a freaking sentence, too, and if you don't believe me, I'll prove it).

Mrs. Carol Roberson, Theodore Roosevelt High School, San Antonio, Texas.

Yet another terror of the classroom. People did ANYTHING to avoid her class. She taught honors English, and she was the ONLY option for honors English for 10th graders, ergo she was my English teacher.

Like Mrs. Doyle, Mrs. Roberson simply refused to accept mediocrity. If you had not read the assignment for class, she ordered you out. You sat on the floor in the hall in disgrace. How did she know whether you read the assignment or not? Every day, she gave a pop quiz (one wonders about the use of the term, "pop quiz" for a quiz one has every day, but I digress). The quiz consisted of a maximum of two or three questions (never four). If you read the assignment, the quiz was a snap and you made 100. If you didn't read the assignment, you made a -0-. Example: "In last night's reading assignment, Act I, Scene 5, at the beginning of the scene, Lady Macbeth is doing something. What is it?"* Well, if you read your assignment, you KNEW what she was doing because it was pretty obvious; if you DIDN'T read the assignment, you could guess 100 times and maybe you'd hit, maybe you wouldn't. Next question: "Same scene: to whom does Lady Macbeth NEXT speak?"** There's your quiz. You read it, you made 100. You didn't read it, you could never guess and you flunked.

Mrs. Roberson believed that you used all your knowledge all the time. There was never a "special" time or place for grammar and spelling. If you wrote her a paragraph (another one of her frequent little "pop" surprises; she might ask you to summarize Act I, Scene 5, in a couple of quick paragraphs), it had to be in proper form, with correct grammar and spelling. Each grammar and spelling error counted 25% of the total, so if you did a great job of summarizing the Act, but misspelled a word and had a run-on sentence like this one, with far too many commas, and no recognizable end in sight, those two errors cost you 50% of your grade---and you got a 50.

Her finals were legendary, and NOBODY would tell the incoming class what it was like (she swore us all to secrecy). Everyone was terrified of her finals. She told us from the beginning of the class, "You cannot study for my final. The night before my final, study for your math final or something; if you don't know the material before my final, you cannot cram for it. When you come for the exam, bring 3 blue books and 3 bic pens."

She was right. All the other teachers were walking around carrying sheaths of mimeographed (mmmmm, purple ink! I can still smell it!) final exams. Not Mrs. Roberson. There we sat, nervously anticipating what was to come. She walked in. "Ready?" she smiled. She turned around to the blackboard, picked up a piece of chalk, and wrote, "Tell me everything you learned this semester." She then said, "You have 2 hours. You can write anything you want. If you want your whole final to be on Macbeth, fine. If you want to hit all the things we covered, that's fine too. Grammar and spelling count; if you can't write, you can't pass."

Thanks to Mrs. Roberson, I can sit down and spit out a paragraph or twelve at the speed of light, with -generally- correct spelling and grammar.

Mrs. Laura Curry, Theodore Roosevelt High School, San Antonio, Texas.

Mrs. Curry was a stitch. Always dyed the hair coal black (and denied it). Hair in bun, pencil in hair. Always wore high heels, hose, and a pleated skirt (she must've had a hundred of them). Always a silk blouse with either a big bow on the blouse or a scarf tied in a bow. Black horn-rimmed glasses. Drove a black Corvette whose rubber she burned every day getting out of the parking lot. Acid wit (sarcasm a speciality). You did not want to become the object of her wit.

Like Mrs. Doyle and Mrs. Roberson, Mrs. Curry was feared and dreaded. She was the Senior Class Sponsor. Those of us in honors English LOVED her. She treated us as adults. She didn't care if we came to class or not (she said). It was our loss if something she said in class (that was not in the book or books) made up a significant portion of the test and we had chosen to skip her class. Like the other two, she demanded no less than perfection; her method involved that acid tongue. If she called upon you in class and you couldn't answer, be assured that you would be told off publicly, condescendingly, embarrassingly, and with malice. Fate worse than death.

Thanks to Mrs. Curry, I can function in pressure situations, spitting out the English language in passable form.

So thank you, ladies; I thought of the three of you after I left the interview. "Whew, thank GOD I had those three tough, mean, demanding, wonderful teachers."

To those who say, "Spelling and grammar are unimportant", I say (as Mrs. Curry might), "That just means, dear, that you can't spell your way out of a paper bag, and your grammar is slightly above that of the aborigines---come to that, I'm sure theirs is better."

*She was reading a letter. If you read the scene, you knew that. If you didn't how would you guess?

**A messenger enters, telling her Macbeth is on the way. She speaks with the messenger. You might guess "Macbeth" or "Duncan" but you'd be wrong. If you read the thing, you knew the NEXT person with whom she spoke was the messenger.

1 comment:

  1. Loved Mrs. Curry, wonder where she is now.