Thank You, Mrs. Yeager

It’s mid-August and schools in my area will be in full swing soon. Doesn’t it seem too soon? It’s not the least bit cold outside, there’s plenty of sun left at the end of the day, and the frogs are still chirping their nighttime melodies.

Back in my elementary school years, we started after Labor Day, finished before Memorial Day and never made up a single snow day. Ever.

Back in my grandad’s day, they walked uphill in the snow both ways to school and only ate oranges for lunch—if they were lucky…

We live near the high school I attended a couple of lifetimes ago, and the parade of buses will start soon. Ugghh. Buses. Introverts are not huge fans of buses. I wasn’t a huge fan of high school, either—at least not the social parts.

I was a good student, though, a rule follower and teacher pleaser. I kept mostly to myself except for a similar group of girls who were also good students and kept their noses clean. I didn’t have to study much; things seemed to come easily for me academically—and I used that academic ease as an escape from a somewhat chaotic life outside of school which was never in my control and which never came easy.

I was one of those geeky/nerdy ones who didn’t mind a research paper or an essay. Big, multipart projects didn’t scare me either.

But Mrs. Yeager did.

Now, mind you, she looked nothing like the photo I sourced for this blog (And, on another note, most of the photos I found when searching for “tough teacher” or similar phrases brought up wrinkled nuns waving wooden rulers. What’s with that stereotype?).

Mrs. Yeager was a petite lady with short, blond hair and a kind voice, and one wouldn’t think she’d be intimidating at all. Until she returned my first English composition paper of the semester. The composition paper that I breezed through like all of the others up until that junior year and did quite well, thank you very much.

Until I saw red.

All. Over. The. Place.

I approached her desk with sweaty palms and asked what the marks meant. And I asked how I could bring my grade up.

She smiled sweetly, told me I had comma issues and I needed to go to the computer lab and work on commas. She handed me a slip of paper and sent me down the hall.

To the computer lab.

To work on commas.

And I turned on the clunky monitor, the computer lab guy showed me where the comma program was and I worked the rest of the class time on comma exercises. Lots of them.

I hated every minute of it. I would’ve rather walked uphill in the snow both ways to school each day and eaten only oranges for lunch for a year. I would’ve rather ridden the bus with blue-butted baboons than to go to the computer lab to work on commas.

The next assignment I turned in to Mrs. Yeager turned into yet another permission slip to go toooo—you guessed it!—the computer lab to work on commas.

And the next essay? Well. Take another guess.

By the end of the semester, however, the red marks dwindled as did the trips down the hall to the computer lab. Thank goodness I was mastering the black-and-white rules of the almighty comma.

I saved those papers. Every one of them.

When I got to college and took English composition, I retyped those suckers with Mrs. Yeager’s corrections and suggestions right down to the last itty bitty comma and handed them in to my professor. (Side note—don’t do that today. Many—if not all—universities consider this plagiarism even if you copy your own work. You’ll get kicked out for sure! But back in my day…)

I got every one of those high school junior-year papers back in my freshman college course with an A—and no red marks.

Thank you, Mrs. Yeager.

I needed that tough teaching from that sweet little lady. I wrote many papers from scratch after that and did well on all of them when I followed the rules she’d ingrained in my head.

Now I’m using those rules today. In fiction. But quite a bit differently.

I know what the rules are. I’ve mastered most of them.

And now I break them. Frequently and on purpose.

I’m breaking them as I write this blog with the purpose of establishing my tone and voice.

Fragments. Ending sentences with prepositions. A misspelled word. A dab of passive voice. Odd ellipses and paragraph breaks.

Writers with a solid grasp of grammar are like carpenters with a toolbox full of tools. We can play with words, structures and syntax. We can change things up. We can make characters sound like they come from a specific region. We can speed up a thrilling fight scene, or we can slowly plunge readers so deep into a setting that they lose their breath. We can paint and build and tear down. All with the tools in our boxes.

And Mrs. Yeager put plenty of tools in my box.

I don’t know where she is now. I didn’t look her up or ask her permission to be the subject of my blog. But I do appreciate her and the other English teachers I’ve had over the years. I’m sure they all put a tool or two into the box. But nothing like that blasted comma lab.

Whatever you’re passionate about—be it writing or art or carpentry—learn the basics. Instill every ounce of knowledge you can about the rigid rules of structure, composition, angles and symmetry into your brain. You never know when you’ll need a particular tool…

(And Mrs. Yeager, if you’re reading this, you may want to close your eyes…)

Then break those rules.

And create something amazing.

Thank you for hanging out for a bit. Check back on Mondays for a new blog and the first Friday of every month for a free fictional short, and be sure to visit my Amazon page.