Thursday, December 30, 2010

"When you have a prepositional phrase modifying another prepositional phrase, you must examine..."

Mrs. Huber was my seventh grade teacher, and she taught me everything I know about English grammar. That is a bold statement, but she was a bold woman. Language arts had always come easily to me, and I especially adored sentence diagramming. She would call us up two at a time, side by side, in contests to see who could diagram the quickest. I can still recall the way the chalkboard smelled, standing expectantly with hand poised, waiting for Mrs. Huber to say, "Now!" I would tear into that sentence, circling and underlining and intersecting lines in an unabashedly self-important manner, running a figurative footrace with the classmate working on the board next to me. Diagramming sentences was my passion and it brought out the competitor in me. "Time!" Mrs. Huber would bark, and I would step back with faux modesty and wait for her to tell me my work was correct. It usually was, too, because Mrs. Huber knew her stuff, and I was an attentive disciple. I would go the extra mile and diagram sentences at home from the King James version of the Bible, or from Edgar Allan Poe, or even Mark Twain (potentially very challenging because of the vernacular). I was, and am, a total, unapologetic language geek.

But the seventh grade was a difficult time in my life and it colored all aspects of my experiences. She and I got off on the wrong foot early on in the year when she called me up to her desk and whispered, in prim, Victorian tones, that I needed to remember to always sit like a lady because, from her vantage point, she could see straight up my skirt. Shocked and embarrassed, I blurted out the first thing that came to my head. "You were looking up my dress?" I know now that she probably believed I was being disrespectful and snarky. How was she to know that I was struggling against a woman at home who was intimidated, enraged really, at my burgeoning pubescence? It was terrible to consider the idea that all woman might be frustrated predators... (*I was being raised by an aunt who had kidnapped me years earlier, posing as my real mother, and the situation was becoming tenser and tenser between us as I matured... which is a whole lotta' other blog posts!*)

Mrs. Huber was famed for being a difficult taskmaster in the classroom, and I thought she was mean to me. She had a zero tolerance policy for any disruptions of any kind, and she suffered no fools gladly. This was the seventh grade, remember, and it was chock full of fools -- girls flirting, testing their sexual powers -- boys strutting and putting on a show for their friends -- hormones whizzing around the room like air released from a balloon. No wonder the woman wanted control, but I saw her as overbearing and not a little scary.

I was eleven going on twelve, and she was over thirty, so naturally enough as I remember her, she might have been anywhere between 40 and 70. The rules of exuberant youth practically beg for a name like Huber to be changed to something like Puber, but my friends and I settled instead, for reasons now lost to me, on Shirley Shuba. We made a little cawing noise out on the playground when referring to her amongst ourselves, again for reasons I have entirely forgotten, and we cruelly dissected her hairdos and fashion don'ts in the girls' bathroom at recess. But for all our bravado, order reigned supreme in her classroom.

I remember the time she arranged all the desks into groups of 4, and Crista and I ended up with two of the cutest boys in our class. I am sure we must have smirked jocosely, and Crista scribbled some words on a paper and flipped the folded package at me. The entire contents ran something along the lines of "Can you believe who we're sitting with?", with my inane response "I know!" Mrs. Huber intercepted the note as I was passing it under the table to Crista and she stood next to me, my eyes level with the zipper fly on her polyester pantsuit, and read it to the entire class, her voice dripping with sarcasm and innuendo. I was mortified, and mad at myself for letting her get to me.

Just a few weeks later, I was the reluctant attendee to a farcical parent-teacher conference where the parent in question was not my parent, and the teacher in question was gushing and patting my shoulder approvingly, claiming there wasn't a subject I could not master. I felt I was in an alternate universe where pleasing fiction was stated as fact. I wanted to turn to each woman and level my accusations: YOU'RE not my mother, and YOU are not proud of me.

I was having a lot of trouble at home and because Mrs. Huber was a temporary fixture in my world, it is possible I focused on her faults as a way to cope with the bigger, much hairier realities staring me in the face. Mrs. Huber was not the monster I constructed out of her shell, poor woman, and time has healed those psychic wounds, real and imagined, from all those years ago. I will always recall how distorted my view of the world was back then, and I try hard to remember that fact in dealing with my own daughters, who are generally the same age now as I was in Mrs. Huber's class. They do not, thank God, have the pressures and peculiarities forced on them that I did, but I am sympathetic nonetheless. Puberty is a rough period in most any kid's life... For years now, I have wanted to tell Mrs. Huber that she sparked in me my first genuine love of language play and that due to her dedicated teaching techniques, she influenced my grades and test scores throughout the rest of my education.

And for that I thank her.

1 comment:

  1. I read your last post but I can't comment on your blog... I like the parallel between the construction of a sentence and the construction of a young girl...