March 5, 2016
The Comma Queen
Before my first high school English class with Mrs. Swift, I never knew that commas could be quite so terrifying. I never knew how intimidating red ink could seem scratched across a white piece of paper. I never knew how that blood red “circle and swoosh!” would come to haunt me, indicating yet another unnecessary punctuative “pause.”
Oh, Commas... I never knew I would have such a love-hate relationship with you! On the one hand, commas allowed me to connect thoughts and ramble on and on (which is imperative for a young and very wordy writer), while still literally pausing to catch my breath. On the other hand, I could never remember the rules exactly so I just developed my own: use them as frequently as possible! In retrospect, I am positive this provided hours of grading entertainment for Mrs. Swift.
I am aware this does not necessarily reflect well on Mrs. Swift’s teaching abilities, but I would have to insist that it had nothing to do with lack of effort on her part. There were plenty of “circle and swoosh” marks on my papers, but over the years I think I finally got the hang of it… mostly. Slowly there were fewer and fewer red ink marks, and more and more frequently there were encouraging notes like “Interesting conclusion” or “I’d like you to develop this thought more” or even simply “Great” (exclamation point).
As an over-achiever, I lived for those notes and that feedback from my self-appointed mentor. It was like honey to a hungry bear. I had always loved to read, but now, in Mrs. Swift’s class, I discovered that having a kindred spirit with whom to DISCUSS books was almost better than reading itself. I could not wait to get my papers and essays back: first to see my grade, but then to gobble up what she thought about my work. Good or bad, praise or critique, it was always insightful, even-handed, and motivating: either to do better or to keep doing well.
Ultimately, I developed into a fairly capable writer, thanks to Mrs. Swift dedicatedly red-lining my papers, thoughtful discussion in class, a broad reading list, and memorizing so many hundreds of vocabulary words that my head spun. If nothing else, writing is a valuable skill that helped me graduate from college, land jobs, and, at times, simply eased my mind. But commas… well, they still haunt me just a little.
I believe – nay, I hope - most people have at least one special teacher from their youth who cared enough to recognize ability or potential, point it out, and push its limits. These are the instructors who thrust you beyond what you think you are capable of, to create something from a place deep inside you – a place you did not know even existed in your own heart and mind. These are the trusted advisors who believe in you in such a way that you are convinced you believe in yourself. These are the mentors that leave an imprint, a mark, or, in this case a (,) on your very being.
Mrs. Swift was all that and more for me. Beyond brilliant tutelage, for me there was a literary comradery that developed past an average student-teacher relationship. We seemed to enjoy the same lengthy Dicken descriptions and clever Austen banter. We laughed at the same timeless Shakespearean irony. There was a simple, mutual appreciation for that simultaneous utterly satisfied, yet horribly empty feeling one experiences when closing the cover on a wonderful book. It was a special bond that only a fellow lover of words, writing, and the English language could ever understand.
Mrs. Swift… Vanita… I know you are going to hear this, or read this yourself, so allow me to apologize for the following: I wrote this essay in first person. I know, I’m sorry, I am a little lazy these days. I also used contractions, changed tenses and audience address multiple times, and had to google synonyms (who owns a thesaurus anymore?) to avoid repeating descriptive words. And guess what? NO ONE DOUBLE SPACES AFTER PERIODS ANYMORE. Shame!
You once wrote me the following email after a class one day:
One thing occurred to me later after class today. Surely you don’t think the only reason you made a higher grade than other students is that you use proper documentation! You should understand that your writing is generally of a very high caliber. Outstanding, I believe, is the designation I have given to A papers. I’m trying to say that it STANDS OUT [your caps] from all the rest. It has but little to do with minor grammatical points.
Sometimes I read one of your papers, and I feel as though it was written without your heart being in it. I can’t say for sure whether it was or not, but it seems that way.... But you have a talent and an ability that makes all your papers very good. –mrs. s
First – I printed that email out and kept it. Fifteen years and counting. Only recently did I find it again, but I’ve carried that message with me as I faced “all-nighters” in college, difficult work emails, and, most recently, the writing of my own father’s obituary. Thank you for whatever inspired you to put that into writing. It has meant so much to me.
Second – in regards to your comment “It has but little to do with minor grammatical points…” Do you mean minor grammatical points like commas? Mrs. Swift, I beg to differ! Understanding the basics or foundation of something is also what makes one good at something. Your comma-torture taught me more than proper placement and punctuation. It taught me the smallest details affect the bigger picture. It taught me that the finer points are often the building blocks to excellence. It taught me to be patient with the process. It taught me not to settle for a first draft, ever. It taught me to not to shy away from God-given abilities, but to exercise them, better them, and use them for good. And I can assure you, my heart is in this last paper. This one is all for you, not a grade, and it is all heart. Please ignore any grammatical mistakes, and - Dear God - I hope you no longer have that red ink pen!
In fact, now it is my turn: to grade the teacher. To tell you that you STOOD OUT [my caps] from all the rest. I saw it in the mischievous twinkle in your eye when you announced vocabulary quizzes. I witnessed it in the way you regally reigned over class discussion, acknowledging personal opinions and correcting misperceptions. I felt it in the way you clearly loved opening literary doors for anyone on your class roster. What might have started and will forever be imprinted as a lesson in proper comma usage, will live on in my memory with a designation of A+, for all-around Outstanding.
We cannot be certain of too many things in this life, but I can be certain of the influence you had on mine. It is important to me that you truly know and take that to heart. If being a teacher was as important as I think it was to you, you must know that your work and effort meant something to me. It meant a great many things to me, and I believe that it shaped my life and my thoughts and affected my outlook. I would not be the same if it were not for your wisdom and handiwork. You wrote a part of my story.
Now, you might be about to close the cover on a wonderful book. It is a classic story in so many ways, but certainly unique to you. It has phenomenal characters (including a model protagonist… that’s you!), adventure, hardship, bravery, legacy, and love. So much love. Love between you and Coach, love planted in your children and grown in your grandchildren, and love from all the young lives that you molded years ago as a teacher. I know I said wonderful books leave us simultaneously utterly satisfied, yet horribly empty feeling. We will certainly feel rather empty when this one is done, but I suggest we end this one with a Comma. It seems appropriate. After all, Commas customarily indicate a brief pause; they are not as final as Periods.