Wednesday, January 13, 2010

English Grammar: A Survival Tool

In 1960, my 8th grade teacher, Mr. George Toutain, successfully transmitted the rules of English grammar to 32 students at Guilford, Connecticut Junior High School. He used a variety of standard approaches--such as memorizing poetry and diagramming sentences--combined with several more energetic and interesting methods. For one exercise, he broke the class into nine groups, assigned each group one of the nine parts of speech, and gave us a week to write and stage a five minute drama about it.

The boy I loved, Gerry Stinson, was paired with Paul Lord, who lived down the street, to act out the meaning of Interjections. Their brilliant performance featured two mad scientists, exploding various concoctions (vinegar and baking soda) in test tubes and vials to cries of "Zounds!" "Eureka!" and "What ho!" against a backdrop of bubbling and burbling laboratory equipment drawn on the blackboard behind them. I doubt that anyone who was in the classroom that day has ever forgotten the definition of interjection.

I have often thought of writing to Mr. Toutain to thank him for teaching me English. This one skill enabled me to survive the deconstructionalism and relativism of the later 1960s, including a dangerous exposure to the sex-rock-drugs movement at Columbia University and the insanity of the feminist movement at Barnard College.

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