Stealing Ideas

Even though I purchased Mighty Girl’s book, No One Cares What You Had For Lunch Today, and read the whole thing, I still find myself motivated by some ideas I’ve encountered in my daily perusal of NaBloPoMo blogs. When I committed to blogging daily for this month, I also decided it would be a good idea — neighborly? — to post a comment daily on someone else’s blog. I started with the “Z” blogs and am working my way backwards through the alphabet. I’ve encountered some interesting folks, btw.

Today was “O” day. I found Lisa Otter‘s year-long testament to 365 people who shaped her life. [Frankly, I clicked on “otter” because I thought it had something to do with my favorite animal.] What a wonderful idea! Apparently, a guy named Dan started this trend. I’m not going to commit to my 44×365. Instead, I’ll tell about a former English teacher who had a profound impact on me.

Harold White: a/k/a “Old Weird Harold” to the ragamuffins at Cabin John Junior High in Potomac, Maryland. He taught at least one of my older brothers, so I was destined to be in his class, too. The man was beyond eccentric and brilliant. He was a master of English grammar and usage. Very “old school.” We studied grammar from a Warriner’s textbook. We diagrammed sentences as long as paragraphs. He insisted on precision, precision, precision. No dangling participles, no mixed metaphors, no misplaced prepositional phrases. No abbreviations in essays or formal letters. Just tight writing.

He taught me to be precise in the written and spoken word. His lessons carried over into my mastery of Spanish and study of other foreign languages. He showed us that form and substance are important, otherwise you sound — and look — like an idiot. Even when I was actively practicing law, I insisted that every contract, pleading, letter, envelope be absolutely perfect before I signed it. My secretaries thought I was nuts. No, just being precise.

Another memory of OWH was the merciless way he teased students. He would never get away with this today, but 30 years ago things were less uptight. I remember him teasing Gary L. about using comics to cover his textbook. “You think you’re a funny guy? Come on Gary, stand up and tell us a joke.” Forget it. Gary was very shy and turned three shades of red that day. Another time, he called on Danny K. to answer a question. Danny needed to turn around in his chair but couldn’t because he got his foot stuck in the rack under another chair. White teased him for 5 minutes or more about not being able to answer the question. Only then did White realize the kid was stuck, and then he teased him for another 5 minutes about that! I laughed so hard that morning that my belly hurt for the rest of the day.

The most indelible memory is diagramming sentences. That nitpicking, daily exercise taught me more about English grammar, parts of speech, and proper modification than anything else. They don’t teach diagramming sentences today, but they should.

Mr. White, wherever you are, thank you.


2 thoughts on “Stealing Ideas

  1. Thanks for your kind comments.

    Doing the 365 blog has shaped me into a better writer. Although there have been times I would like to have quit, I have not and that is why I’m on post 282. Doing NaBloPoMo feels a bit like cheating. I was already doing it.

    I admire OWH and wish I would have someone like him in my youth. I’m horrible at grammar and would struggle to diagram a sentence properly. Mr. White knew what he was doing!

    Thankfully the 44 word limit allows for the shattering of a few rules.

  2. Mine was Miss MacLure. She’d probably have a stroke if she saw how I write blog entries. With part sentences. Like this. For emphasis. But her tough English classes made the English classes after it so much easier. Thanks for reminding me of that.

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