Friday, July 08, 2016

On Teachers, Editors, and Grammar

This piece was originally posted in January 2015,

Bertha was my English teacher in tenth grade, and, truly, she was not a nice woman. She embarrassed students and seemed to enjoy it. Not only were you in for it if you made a mistake, but once she even made fun of a student's name, in class, in front of all his peers. 

This, to me, was the height of educational meanness. We called her by her first name behind her back, a sure sign of disrespect we thought she deserved.

And yet, her meanness is not all I remember about Bertha, whose last name I can no longer remember. I remember she drilled the basics of English grammar into me, effectively building on what all my other teachers had taught. 

Fast forward to early in my career in publishing. One of the marketing guys was frustrated because his copy frequently came back to him from editors with changes of the it's and its variety. He finally asked one of the seasoned editors, who had been an English teacher, to explain what he had been doing wrong.

The time they spent together with some basic rules of the English language and grammar resulted in his copy improving almost immediately. Later she told me he said, "I'm a smart, educated guy. But no one ever taught me most of this stuff." What was obvious, of course, was that he had not had a Bertha in school, someone who ensured he at least had the opportunity to learn "this stuff." 

I was and still am grateful to my high school English teacher for what she taught me. I'd like to think I would remember Bertha for that gift even if she had been demanding and strict yet kind to her students.

We're told by colleges and universities that many students arrive these days without having learned grammar, without knowing how to write well in the most basic of ways. I am not a professional educator, so I cannot say. But . . . 

Here's to all the elementary through high school teachers—including homeschooling parents—who teach English . . . "this stuff" . . . and more to their students! And in cases where students have not been prepared, here's to all the university profs who encourage struggling freshmen to take advantage of campus writing labs.

Last, here's to all the authors who allow us editors to (nicely) help them keep the English language looking good on the printed and digital page. Whether or not writers had a Bertha, it's easy for them (and all of us) to make mistakes in the throes of storytelling and message making.

Please, just don't call us Bertha. 

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