If anyone could read this particular post, I’d like it to be Sr. Mary Florence, the teacher I had in the 5th, 6th and 8th grades at Sacred Heart School in San Jose, California. She was a ruthless editor, far tougher than any editor I’ve worked with at a newspaper, magazine or web media company. She drilled the rules of grammar into my pre-pubescent head.
Thanks to Sr. Mary Florence and the other nuns who taught me English, I have retained a lifelong fascination with dangling participles. “Lying in the gutter, Hannah found her lost watch,” still makes me laugh out loud. I apply the “Hannah” test to any clause-containing sentence I write to make sure my subject doesn’t metaphorically wind up in the gutter.
“Ambiguous antecedents” is another weak spot of mine, a particularly heinous grammatical crime that I find all too easy to commit. “My purse was in the car, but now it’s gone.” What’s gone – the purse or the car? That’s how easy an ambiguous antecedent can slip into a sentence. An ever-watchful sentinel when it came to grammar, Sr. Mary Florence would never have let an error like that escape her red pen.
But I owe Sr. Mary Florence for more than the rigorous training she gave me in grammar and composition. She was the first one to encourage me to write, and she allowed me to see that my writing could affect others. When our class took a day trip to the Moffett Field Naval Air Station we all had to write about our experience when we got back to school. As I recall, my essay contained some funny observations about how our class, especially the girls, interacted with the sailors who escorted us around the facility.
Sr. Mary Florence asked me to read my paper to the class. I remember standing next to her desk in front of the class. I had a death grip on my paper and struggled to keep my voice steady and not trip over my words in my nervousness. The class listened and actually laughed at all the right places. It was a revelation to me that something I wrote could provoke that kind of reaction. The glow I felt lasted all afternoon, and I can still feel it in retrospect.
Thanks to Sr. Mary Florence, I started thinking about a writing career when I was 13. That one positive experience in her class sustained me through years of hard work and rejections. Sometimes I don’t know if I should bless her or blame her. It’s been a rocky road at times. But having someone believe in you is a gift that lasts a lifetime.
I’m sad to admit that I lost track of Sr. Mary Florence. The last time I saw her was when she visited her fellow nuns at my high school. I was struck by how small she seemed. I realized that she hadn’t shrunk, I had just grown. Freed from having to maintain the teacher-student discipline, she was warm and friendly, and a bit fluttery. She even cracked a smile, something she rarely did in class.
In her honor I’d like to end my post with “Weird Al” Yankovic’s ode to grammar, “Word Crimes.” It’s a parody of Robin Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines.” I’d like to think my former writing teacher would appreciate “Weird Al’s” message.