In Honor of Someone Who Taught Me to Swim*

On the first day of ninth grade, my English teacher took away the verb “to be.”

She stood before the class and told us that any appearance of the offending verb – “is, am, were, are or otherwise” – would cost us one-third of a letter grade on the essay in question.  Worse, she decreed it a “stacking debuff” – meaning that multiple occurrences would result in multiple penalties.  In a speech I later titled “Is That an A- I See Before Me,” she explained that too many writers lean heavily on this particular verb, that smart writers find better options, and that she intended to show us absolutely no mercy in order to teach us to express ourselves as deliberately as possible.

Then she held us to it.

For the next fifteen weeks, I struggled against the hive.  I wrote, rewrote, turned sentences on their heads and eventually managed to explain the buzz without the bees.  I wrote no less than ten full essays, and tripped only once – in an essay on clipper ships, where I insisted that there was no other way to explain a clipper ship without using The Forbidden Verb.  I took the hit deliberately and on principle, with a lead sentence that read “Clipper ships were the fastest sailing ships of the nineteenth century” because I knew I couldn’t define the topic any other way.

Until the day she returned the paper.  As she handed it across the desk, with the expected red mark crossing off word #3, I looked up at my teacher in chagrin and thought, “Clippers, the fastest sailing ships of the nineteenth century, usually had three masts and square rigging.”

I had learned the lesson.   Too late to save the A, but I learned a stronger lesson for it.

In semester 2, she permitted us to reintroduce The Forbidden Verb, but in more than two decades, I have never again used it idly.  I use it, yes, but every time I write the verb “to be” I find myself asking whether laziness or utility moved my hand.

At the time, my classmates and I criticized this teacher for implementing a needlessly draconian rule.  Why should we struggle so hard when everyone uses The Forbidden Verb a thousand times a day?

In the many years since, I have come to understand.  I’ve had many stellar teachers in my life, but no other had an impact so long-lasting or profound.  By forbidding the easy road, she forced me to look at language in an entirely different light.

I don’t know where Ms. Teare has gone, or what job she holds today.  I lost contact with her in the years since high school graduation.  But when the Storyqueen told us to thank a teacher and to recognize a captain who would not desert a ship, this story came to mind.  Thank you, Ms. Teare, for taking away the life preservers we did not really need, and teaching us to swim when we didn’t want to.

I, for one…am better for it.

* Inspired by this post at Storyqueen’s Storycastle, which I found via Coffey. Tea. And Literary

2 thoughts on “In Honor of Someone Who Taught Me to Swim*

  • October 14, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    What a difference a great teacher can make. I think I will learn from her, too, and pay more attention to my “be” verbs. Thanks for the post.

  • October 14, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    I treat “to be” like a locust plague. Only good if you really want to bring on the apocalypse. Piper probably understands.

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