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Food For Thought

Recent reminiscences brought back vivid memories of some of the revelations that I encountered in junior high school. I think those years (in our day, sixth, seventh and eighth grades) were more enlightening and certainly more exciting than any other period until college. It was in junior high that we learned about Shakespeare. My friend Rosemary and I were talking about our memories of those years and it seems we were both greatly impressed by how well our seventh grade teacher brought to life such tales as “The Merchant of Venice” and “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Those English classes were scheduled as three different classes, so Rosemary and I had different teachers– and different exposure to Shakespeare, but we both became avid fans of the Bard and wanted more.
The semester was divided into three different units; one was literature, including prose, poetry, plays and non-fiction. There was a rather tedious stretch of boring and mysterious rules of grammar which neither of us quite grasped, but which would be clarified by Mrs. Cotter when we got to eighth grade. And we tried our hand at composing our own literature, learning new vocabulary and, of necessity, honing our spelling skills. My favorite part of the creative writing unit was when I got to write poems. I use the term loosely, as the stuff I wrote was poetry only in the sense that the last words of every two lines rhymed– relentlessly– often at the cost of making sense. Our junior high principal, Miss McGowan, went out of her way to give us opportunity to discover new things and experience areas of culture that were not an actual part of the curriculum. Study halls periods, under her direction, often became art classes, since there were few schools with actual art teachers and regular art classes in the 1940s. There were assembly programs every few weeks, where we were encouraged to perform, whether it was playing an instrument, singing, acting in short skits, reciting poems, giving readings we had committed to memory, or reading aloud some of our attempts at creative writing. The day came when my classmates were resigned to hearing yet one more of my dreadful attempts at poetry.
Mrs. Cotter was a formidable woman. While kind and grandmotherly, she still had an overwhelming air of authority about her– even more than that of Miss McGowan. She had been my sixth grade homeroom teacher and taught the sixth grade math classes. Often, when the day’s planned lessons were completed ahead of schedule, we played mental math until the bell rang for the end of the class period. She would lead us through a series of additions, subtractions, multiplications and divisions until very few of us arrived at the correct final number. It was good mental exercise and because of the concentration required, kept us quiet and occupied during that extra class time.
In eighth grade, Mrs. Cotter made learning the parts of speech and parsing sentences into an investigation of a marvelous and absorbing mystery. There were rules of grammar that we had to learn, but she explained them well and the examples she gave were simple and taught us to use good sense in coping with the peculiarities of the English language. The trick that has helped me the most over the years is the practice of following through a sentence by adding the words that are implied. This helps to clarify the form of the sentence itself and makes it easier to determine if the grammar is correct.
To give an example, if we say, “If you are tall like me...” What we are really saying is, “If you are tall like me am tall...,” it definitely sounds wrong. Immediately, we know that we should be using “I” instead of “me.” And, statements that use the words “you and I” can be tricky as to whether it should be “you and me.” Depends on whether this is the subject of the sentence or not. If so, then you would not say, “Me likes chocolate ice cream.” So you shouldn’t say, “You and me both like chocolate ice cream.” Too often, I hear people say such things as, “It is important to you and I.” If you eliminate the “you and,” it is clear that you should refer to yourself as “me” in that sentence. You really don’t need to memorize all the rules, but you do need to pay attention to exactly what a sentence is saying and listen to the sound of the implied words. Rules, too often, come with exceptions. Take the well-known “I before E except after C– except in , , and . I have never been able to remember those, so I always check with the dictionary when in doubt.
We covered “me” and “I”, and that leaves only the “myself”. It sounds pompous to say “myself” when “I” or “me” would do, but there are a few times when “myself” sounds better. The general rule is to save “myself” for those occasions when you refer to yourself as you would to another person, as in the following sentence. “I have a photo of Rosemary and myself that she sent to me.”