I learned how to sit sullenly at the back of the classroom and glare at the teacher my sophomore year of high school. Through the eighth grade I got straight A’s no problem. I sat in the middle with a reasonably pleasant look on my face. Freshman year I hit a few bumps in the road, but it wasn’t until Mrs. Strange’s* English class the following year that I completely shut down.
You see, my dog died. I wrote a paper about all the things I’d loved about Barney and how much I missed him. Greatest dog ever. Once when I was three or four I escaped from the house and asked Barney if it was okay if I went to the park. He said yes, and off we went! (Mom found us before we got there.) If anyone at church or the mall or the grocery store ever asked if I had siblings, I’d respond, “I have two sisters and a brother. He’s a dog.” One of the things I mentioned in my paper was that whenever I had sleepovers, all the girls would try to get Barney to sleep on their sleeping bag. It was such a vivid and happy memory for me. Girls patting the end of their shiny sleeping bags and calling, “Barney! Barney!”
When I got the paper back, it had little notes along the side, but I only remember one of them. “DOGS AND BEDDING DO NOT MIX.”
Do you think I absorbed any grammar advice she may have mentioned in other places? No. I was furious. At the time I probably thought I was angry because she was insulting my hygiene, but I realize now that it was because she ignored my pain and made a completely unnecessary comment. She could have told me how to use language to better draw readers into my joy and pain (I’m sure I needed help—I still do!) but she chose to make a silly comment that I’m sure she didn’t think would affect me much at all.
But it did. So I sat in the back with a girl named Bonnie from then on. She seemed to hate Mrs. Strange, too. Probably got told that her dream of being an astronaut was unrealistic or something. I never asked. But there we sat, snickering at our formal, old, hag of a teacher and waiting for the year to end.
Looking back, I pity Mrs. Strange. She was raised at a time and place where teaching was probably the only profession she was allowed. And obviously she’d never been allowed to snuggle with a dog. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that English teachers and social media commenters should not be distracted by a sentence that they disagree with but should instead focus on the writer’s feelings. English teachers are there to help use the craft to perfect our own voice.
My first year of college I had the best English teacher I’ve ever had. Professor Schneider didn’t care if a dog or a dozen drunken sailors shared your bed. He cared about words. Language. Expression. Soul. He might hack apart this blog, but he would never overlook the feelings I have about Mrs. Strange and say “kids shouldn’t glare at their teachers.” He would say, “here’s how you can show us more clearly how you felt about her,” without passing judgement on my feelings. I have a feeling that he wouldn’t disagree with me anyway. I have a feeling that he would have been sitting in the back with me and Bonnie.
*Name changed, a little