Monday, September 13, 2010

Diagramming Sentences

My first time through 7th Grade was--to put it mildly--a disaster.  That was the year I spent at parochial school.  The nuns didn't like me because my parents didn't go to church.  The teachers (who seemed to have been hired solely based on the strength of their faith) didn't like me for the same reason, but they also sensed a latent disrespect for authority that they felt could only be exorcised through the massive exertion of their power.  The kids, naturally knowing what fresh meat looked like, were no solace for me or some few other exiles.  Naturally these kids were already able to read the hidden signs that even today make suburbanites think twice before inviting me to a cookout.  Honestly I am surprised I didn't swear off the church forever right there.

The one refuge afforded to me and my friends in the midst of our personal "Lord of the Flies Academy" was the classroom of our English teacher, Mrs. Schofield.  Everyone, even the bullies and the teachers and the nuns knew enough not to mess with her.  She was about two centuries old with a tall purple beehive that anticipated the B-52s by many years and--while outside her classroom she would sometimes seem lost--inside she ruled.  

Mrs. Schofield was already old and worthy of respect whe she taught our parents.  I mean this literally.  She persisted in calling me "Jimmy," my father's name when he was her student in elementary school.  The boy next to me was know as "Enoch", the name of his great uncle who "was always a disrespectful boy" and sat in roughly the same spot in another classroom many, many years before.  No doubt the original Enoch was unaware he was passing on this special designation to others in his clan.  She lived on the "Schofield Farm" with her brother-in-law.  The farm got its name from a string of "Captian Schofields" that lived there.  Paintings of their schooners beating into full gales could be found lining the walls of the public library.  More evidence of her greatness.

Now, Mrs, Schofield had seen too many kids in her day to care about them as individuals, but she hated slovenliness, ignorance, and arbitrary discipline.  I believe that on some level she realized that she was surrounded by it, so she made sure that it was left in the hallway when she closed her door to teach.  We were a sea of children and her job was to help us navigate the language that God had--irrationally--given us.  The only reason she took any notice of me, slouching miserably in the back of the room, was that I was the only one in her class who did not know how to diagram a sentence.

I loved to read, but couldn't write.  My penmanship was horrible.  My ideas scattered and half-formed.  One day, during the first month of school, she kept me after class and asked and asked her fateful question, "Jimmy, why can't you write a decent paper?"  I had no choice at that point but to confess. 

I don't remember quite what happened next.  There were some words and a statement about how she had never met a 7th Grader who didn't know what an "object" was.  Then, like some small-yet-dangerous purple dragon, she lost it.  Standing above me, stretched to her entire four-and-a-half feet she yelled "DO YOU MEAN TO TELL ME THAT YOU DO NOT KNOW HOW TO DIAGRAM A SENTENCE!!!???"  I nodded.  "THEN YOU WILL LEARN!"  In that moment she probably assumed that I had been raised by hippies, taught in a school filled with raging alcoholics and probably beaten every day of my life.  To not know how to do this simple thing--it became clear--was excusable.  To not have taught me how was a one way ticket to hell.

Sentence diagramming was, of course, about twenty years out of date.  Mrs. Schofield was very old school.  So naturally she dealt with this the only way she knew how; she put me out in the hallway.  She--much to the envy of my friends--also kept me in from recess.  And she drilled me every day.  "This is a verb.  This is a subject.  This is the object, the adjective, the article, the prepositional phrase."  Building a sentence was like building a barn or a boat to her.  There was a rhythm and a structure.  Everything had its place and it would float or sink depending on how I built it.  Maybe I haven't made this clear up until now, but this changed my life.  Rhythm and structure, art and grace were what I needed (what middle schooler doesn't?) and the only place they could be found was in the foul-smelling hallway of a place I hated.  I am a child of the eighties, so please forgive me if I compare Mrs. Schofield to Mr. Miyagi.  To me that is exactly who she was.  Of course, in the movie, the teacher is changed, too.  That didn't happen.  Every analogy limps.

The years have rolled by, obviously.  I changed schools at the end of the year and had a better 7th Grade experience the second time. In fact, I have largely consigned the experience of that horrible school to some dark recess of my mind where it remains silted over and undisturbed.  I have moved on and found myself with a small career in a religious tradition (Congregationalism) that has its own issues with authority and sees mine as healthy and normal.  Things are fine now.  I choose not to reflect on that part of my past all that often.

 Today, however, I thought of Mrs. Schofield who helped me find a voice.  I wanted to say "thanks" in some way.  I haven't heard that she has died and I am not sure she would be capable of death.  If you see her, then, let her know that this afternoon I pulled a diagramming worksheet off the web to give to son #2 (Son #1 doesn't know how).  I will teach him. He will understand the beauty of a a sentence. "This is a subject," I will say.  "This is an object.  This is verb, and an article, and an adjective, and a prepositional phrase."  It is like a boat.  Will it sink or swim?  Everything has its grace and structure.  Everything has its place.


  1. I love this post. Grammar is my life. (That is, it's sort of my life, so long as you presume a large metaphorical caveat and understand that, to me, writing a poem with a comma splice is like streaking at the high school prom: the stuff of nightmares but a fabulous time if you're drunk enough.)

  2. I learned to diagram sentences from my 9th Grade English teacher -- but not the standard way. He taught a simplified but elegant system that I still remember 40 years later. He says it was taught to him by a guy who was -- I am not making this up -- trapped underneath an ambulance in the midst of a firefight during WW 2, and while there came up with this system to pass the time...

  3. Dawn, I never went to my prom but I think I get it...

    DairyState, that has to be the best grammar creation story in history! How did he do it?

    Also, diagramming day 1 seems to be going well. But then I am saving prepositional phrases for another day...

  4. Hi Adam, this is a beautiful post. To be honest, I had never heard of diagramming sentences until I read your post (since English isn't my native tongue or education). However, being German means all those subjects/verbs/objects, etc. are part of my genetic make-up, it seems. I have always thought that I should be very grateful that I didn't have to learn English as my native tongue since the absence of conjugation and declension makes English grammar really hard. Good luck with diagramming sentences for #2!