Who would have guessed that a book on grammar and punctuation could be just as much fun to read as say, Sex and the City? Well, maybe not that much fun, but fun nevertheless. The book I’m referring to here is Eats, Shoots & Leaves–The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss, a droll and entertaining Brit. She writes about the use and misuse of commas, apostrophes (don’t get me started on those!), semi-colons and colons much like an historian would chronicle the secret lives of the saints.
I find it fascinating, but then I’m one of those terrible people who take umbrage at those misplaced apostrophes. Yes, I am a “stickler” (as Ms. Truss calls her followers) and I, too, fear there has been a general dumbing-down of written English since the advent of email and text messaging.
People just don’t give a hoot anymore.
Mr. Townsend would be appalled. He was my 9th grade English teacher and the pivotal force behind my emergence from the shadows of grammar apathy into the golden dawn of English language enlightenment.
Up until 9th grade I was only a mediocre student, at best. Somehow, I found myself placed in the top English class my last year in junior high school. It must have been my reading scores that landed me there because reading was the only subject where I excelled and exhibited any interest. I had been floating through school on a wave of indifference. Mr. Townsend threw me a lifeline and pulled me ashore.
About Mr. Townsend: he was very slim and fairly short. He was a natty dresser; given to fitted tweed suits with nipped-in waists and two back vents. He was originally from Louisiana, so he had a Southern drawl that dripped honey when he wanted it to, but he could also make it bite like a Copperhead.
He used to assume a sort of pose at the blackboard where he would slouch back on one hip, one arm held tightly across his waist in front, while gesturing with the other hand that held the chalk; much like Bette Davis smoking a cigarette. All that was missing was, “What..a..dump!”
Then, still holding this basic position, he would swivel and turn back and forth from the blackboard as he demonstrated some aspect of grammar. Think of Tim Gunn on Project Runway and you get the picture: he was wonderful to watch.
Early in the year, Mr. Townsend approached us with a request to help him proofread an article he was writing for a gourmet magazine. It was about the correct method for cooking a chicken in a clay or terracotta container. He was very serious about this article, and I’m sure he thought we would be suitably impressed with his magnificent grasp of English and be properly awed.
He wanted us to read the draft he had written and then pass it on to the person behind us. I happened to have the good fortune of being in the front desk in the first row. This position wasn’t awarded to me because I was the top student in the class. Our seats clearly weren’t assigned because of merit. We had each chosen our own seat on the first day of class and I chose mine because it was closest to the door, allowing me the ability to make a quick exit if the need arose.
Mr. Townsend handed me the paper and went back to his desk. I couldn’t have gotten more than half way down the first page when a glaring error leaped out at me. To my astonishment, he had written the word “foul” in describing the star of the recipe, when what he had meant to write was “fowl”.
I got up and took the paper back to his desk and showed him the error of his ways. He was very embarrassed and fell all over himself in gratitude for my discovery of this egregious mistake. (I failed to mention that he always gave us two new vocabulary words every day. That has come in handy over the years.) I returned to my desk feeling somewhat good about myself and we all went about our work.
The good feelings didn’t last long. I may have become more enlightened by Mr. Townsend’s approach to English but, apparently, he hadn’t lifted me out of my attraction to pedestrian literature. One of my book reports was on Gidget Goes Hawaiian, and you can imagine the terrible razzing I got from him on that one. War and Peace it ain’t. My face flushed with humiliation, I vowed to get my revenge somehow.
Finally, the opportunity presented itself.
Mr. Townsend was demonstrating how to diagram a sentence at the board, which required a lot of spins and turns and flourishes on his part as he tried to drum the information into our skulls.
I don’t remember what I said that displeased him, but he was giving me a hard time for not recognizing something that he thought should be as obvious as balls on a tall dog.
That is when I did it.
Still seated at my desk, I calmly turned over the large hand-printed card that I had been keeping face down on my binder for just such an occasion.
I flashed it at him like a judge in an Olympic competition.
Mr. Townsend immediately crumpled against the blackboard in paroxysms of laughter. Still laughing, he raised his chalk into the air and said, “Touché!”
The word on the flashcard?