I've mentioned our butchered spoken language before on this blog, and will probably mention it again. I suppose the decline of grammar bothers me because long ago I was taught words are important. Words have power.
Not a day goes by that I don't hear someone speaking incorrectly (and please understand, I'm not saying I'm perfect because I'm not). But there are some basics in our language that are now so pervasively misused that I'm afraid my head is going to blow off. I went to buy tomato plants the other day. The nice young girl waiting on me, maybe in her twenties, pointed them out. "These ones are the Big Boys," she said. "And these ones are cherry tomatoes." I was so rattled by "these ones" for all I know I bought palm trees. A few weeks ago on American Idol J-Lo said "Me and Randy agree," and followed up with the glowing statement, "That song has never been sang like that before!" There is no respite, not even in music. The wildly popular Lady Gaga has a new song out with the line "There's something, baby, about you and I." Poetic license notwithstanding, Miss Gaga, the line should be "There's something, baby, about you and me." Maybe it doesn't sound right when you sing it that way, but now I'm so distracted by the grammatical inaccuracy that I have to shut the radio off when the song comes on. Finally, there's my own personal pet peeve: good and well. You LOOK good, you DO well. You don't do good, and you only look well if you've recently gotten over an illness. All this makes me want to stick my aforementioned explosive skull into a hole in the ground because I'm afraid I'm going to become known as that mean woman in the yellow house who corrects everybody's English.
I've had some great teachers: a few in college, some in work life, and a couple in high school, although one of those high school teachers really stands out. Her name is Betty Fagan, who I still see on occasion and who to this day I cannot call Betty. She was, is, and always will be Mrs. Fagan to me.
Mrs. Fagan's pet peeve was usage of the words a lot. "A lot," Mrs. Fagan would tell quaking students, eyes blazing, "is a piece of land." Translation: use it any other way in my class (i.e., "I like this book a lot!") and pay the price. She was a fearless instructor and terrifyingly verbal. She had an acute sense of right and wrong, right being no nonsense, no attitude, no back talk, and hard work toward a goal, because school was a job and by god there will be no slackers here. I think I'm accurate in saying every student understood that giving Mrs. Fagan lip was a mistake of gargantuan proportions. You did not want Mrs. Fagan to lock her eyes onto your face in anger, nor did you want her striding toward you down the hall if you were engaged in monkey business. In high school in the 1970s, parents rarely came roaring into the principal's office to protect their children. Our generation of parents, like Mrs. Fagan, also understood right and wrong. When kids were in that building, teachers were boss, no exceptions. Get in a fight, get suspended. Get in too many fights, get expelled. Fail a class, go to summer school. Fail a grade, repeat the grade. We were not tender millennium reeds, crumbling under criticism. We were young adults, and our instructors were there to teach us English, math, science, history, and the skills to then take that knowledge into a world where we would become actual adults, a world that, by comparison, made school look like one long party.
Mrs. Fagan, for all her hard bark, was a superb teacher. Indeed, she taught us what she was charged to teach, about the English language and about writing. But there was so much more. She taught us when to listen, when to speak, and how to speak. She made us read difficult books. She made us write essays that were more difficult still. She challenged us, and when we thought we'd done our best, she squeezed out a bit more, making us realize there was always room to reach harder, to climb higher, to be better. She criticized us when we made mistakes, and praised us when we excelled. She taught us how to win, and maybe more importantly, she taught us how to lose...and rebound to win again.
A few years back, my alma mater established a Wall of Fame, where graduates of this small town school and noted people of this little village are recognized for their success and good work. On Thursday, May 19, Mrs. Fagan, who retired many years ago, is being inducted to the Wall of Fame. Half (or more) of those already on the Wall were Mrs. Fagan's students, a fact that surprises no one. Her dedication to her students may not have been fully realized by those of us being educated on her watch, but I don't think one of us now regrets a moment in her class. She was not just an English teacher. She was a life teacher and a wonderful person who helped thousands of young adults from this tiny place in central New York set sail into a brighter future. She helped us understand we could make something of ourselves. Thanks to her, many of us did.
When I listen to "Me and Randy" and "These ones are Big Boys," I cringe, not just for myself, but for those who are speaking, who weren't lucky enough to have Mrs. Fagan standing in front of the blackboard, eyes sparkling, warning them that a lot is a piece of land and teaching them what she taught me: to speak correctly because words are important, words have power. I have not written a single word in 40 years when Betty Fagan's voice hasn't been in the back of my mind, pushing me, guiding me, challenging me. Thank you, Betty, for caring so much about the children of strangers, and congratulations. It's high time somebody said out loud job well done.
(And Mrs. Fagan, if you're reading this and I've goofed up on grammar...forgive me.)