“For years, I have kept a set of file folders in the back of the ‘General Reference’ drawer of my four-drawer, salmon-colored file cabinet, and inside these folders are classroom assignments for a perfectly wonderful imaginary class I am always preparing for, to let students know that the biggest secret about language is that it’s a place where you can actually be in charge of something important in your life. You can make changes, improve reality, create something worthwhile even if nobody on the planet ever knows about it, or cares.”—Anita Sullivan
On The Other Hand
By Anita Sullivan
EUGENE Oregon—(Weekly Hubris)—January 2019—My parents expected me to become an English teacher, and I tried mightily to please them but, in this regard at least, I failed.
Lack of good teachers as role models was not my excuse: I was extremely well taught—or perhaps I should say tutored—in all subjects, by my parents.
My father’s patience, for example, not only got me through algebra and trigonometry, but his command of the English language was such that he took pleasure in writing short witty pieces for non-academic publications and actually relished turning his mind to literary questions from his only daughter, such as “Daddy, I need a good name for a basketball team in a satire I’m writing for the school newspaper.” After a few seconds of puckering his brow, he gave a little shrug as if this quick answer were only the first of many more possibilities: “How about The Podunk Pullets?”
I was smitten by the brilliance of this reply, and snickered my way back to my manual typewriter, knowing I couldn’t have thought it up in a million years. In fact, this gleeful camaraderie between us on the subject of word-power may have been a kind of subconscious wisdom on his part, a way of encouraging me to become a writer rather than a teacher of writing—something I can’t imagine he would have done on purpose.
My father was a professor of electrical engineering at Clemson University, a subject completely closed to me. I assumed it was a very dry topic, more like math or physics, where the “teacher” simply wrote numbers and connecting symbols all over the blackboard, and learning happened by memory, since explanatory words would have no real subject matter to hold onto. My college experience with engineering students was that they had minds that ran on electricity, or oil and gas, but words were in short supply and thus used only to convey basic information. Throughout adolescence, my romantic temperament caused me to look down upon my father’s chosen vocation, wishing he was at least a Professor of Philosophy, or Archaeology, or Old English who maybe wrote mystery novels on the side under a pseudonym.
My mother, meanwhile, was in charge of my reading list, and introduced me to all the wonderful English novels with gardens in them.
Although I avoided the many attempts of parents and larger society to send me down the chute to a career in teaching English composition or literature, I never ceased to carry on a kind of secret, unrequited affair with the profession I never had the courage to take a full run at. For years, I have kept a set of file folders in the back of the “General Reference” drawer of my four-drawer, salmon-colored file cabinet, and inside these folders are classroom assignments for a perfectly wonderful imaginary class I am always preparing for, to let students know that the biggest secret about language is that it’s a place where you can actually be in charge of something important in your life. You can make changes, improve reality, create something worthwhile even if nobody on the planet ever knows about it, or cares.
So, when I enter my imaginary classroom three times a week (I’m teaching in a community college) I always head straight for the far-left corner of the blackboard, and I start writing (before the students have started to trickle in) today’s “Pun” exercise. It’s always from the top of my head, and sometimes kind of corny or lame, and the students roll their eyes as well they should. For example, early in the term—before we’ve gotten all sophisticated—I write the day’s exercise as follows: “You just got a text on your cell phone that said: ‘Warning Bulletin: Purple-People Eater escaped and heading down I-5; Use Extreme Caution; Do not leave your cars’—The question is, Should you be worried?”
I give the students about two minutes to digest this bit of absurd folderol I am wasting their time with and, after a bit of back-and-forth like, “Of course this is so silly nobody would pay any attention,” and gentle pressure from the teacher, to the effect of “pretend you have heard of this creature—since there is actually a song about it—should you be worried?” And soon they will spot the hyphen, and then you can have a few more minutes getting them to make up other examples of where the presence or absence of this tidbit of punctuation might make an enormous difference in whatever is going on at the time. (The original song, by the way, did not include a clarifying hyphen in either of the spots where it might have been helpful.) Punctuation can be a life or death matter.
And from here you can move up the ladder to more serious and weighty word-tangles, such as
the limerick/tongue-twister about the flea and the fly (originally by Ogden Nash): A flea and a fly in a flue/Were imprisoned, so what could they do?/Said the fly, “Let us flee!”/“Let us fly!” said the flea/So they flew through a flaw in the flue.
Here, students would be introduced to the vast sub-category of homonyms, words pronounced the same but spelled differently and thus not meaning the same thing. Even in this deft little poem, the poet does not manage to sneak in the word “flu,” which refers to a sickness, not a vent in the side of a house.
Someone might find a substitute for “imprisoned” that begins with an ‘f’ (I have not been able to come up with anything better than “flummoxed”). The entire category of homonym is slowly disappearing before a thuggish indifference to the need for words that are grass-fed and cage-free. Where are the theirs and theres of yesteryear, the whiles and wiles? The just desserts? What would Oregon do at the Christmas season without that line from Handel’s Messiah gleefully misread as “And It Shall Rain Forever!”
“The Purple People Eater,” written and performed by Sheb Wooley, reached No. 1 in the Billboard pop charts in 1958.
To order Anita Sullivan’s book, The Bird That Swallowed the Music Box, click on the book cover below.