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How I learned grammar

In fifth grade it was spelling bees and the teacher's ruler on our outstretched hands when we would misbehave. The combination of competitive victory and escape of pain made me take an interest in the letters that make up words. I was not going to be defeated by the wildly unruly ways of spelling English words. Nor was I about to let anybody hit me, just because they were the authority.

By eighth grade I had become more willingly the "good student." My grammar teacher used to walk up and down the aisles between our desks, and when someone would give the wrong answer, she would grab his ear and pull him up to his feet - by his ear! It would hurt (they don't let teachers do that anymore), and I wanted to learn grammar so she wouldn't pull my ear. So I did. Somehow I knew there was freedom, if I could just master this game of grammar.

The next year I had a totally different teacher. She would invite us to write freely. She took an interest in our lives, our imagination. I remember once she played Ravel's Bolero for us, and invited us to imagine in words what we heard. For me it was a journey, like the Hobbits' journey, across mountain ranges, to far lands. We read literature, we kept journals, and started to explore our rich inner life. I had the tools now, grammar from my ear-pulling teacher and imagination from my creative teacher, and I was off. In that combination of discipline and imagination, I could fly. Language was now my wings.

In eleventh grade, my teacher every day would fill the blackboard with famous quotations. Mr. Reed, a little too liberal for the community, invited us to taste the explosive power of concisely stated radical ideas, able to pierce an open mind, on the balanced precision of grammatical forms. Antithesis was undefeatable; parallel structure could build to an explosion of passion. The mastery of grammar was the engine that lifted me out of that hall of domination which sometimes can be our public schools.

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