Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Declining Standards



     Back in the day – the day being the mid-sixties, when on good a day I was aspiring to be a mediocre student at Bethel Park Senior High School – I couldn’t wait to be free of the English teachers who went into paroxysms of disgust at the first sign of a comma fault, a dangling participle, a missing word or some teensy-weensy spelling error. 
     The other day – that day being Monday – I was disappointed to discover that at least one English teacher has mellowed.
     It all started a few days before when Jim, a resident, approached me at dinner and said Dennis, the bus driver, had given Covenant Woods his two-week notice.
     “A couple of the ladies asked me to put something together for him,” Jim said. “I told them, ‘I’m no writer, but I know someone who thinks he is.’ Would you be willing to write something?”
     I told him I would be. And I did, to wit:

Dennis,
For greeting us with smiles;
For driving all those miles;
For trips to the Dollar Store,
Publix, Wal-Mart and many more;
For being on time for our doctor appointments
So we could get pills, shots and some ointments;
For taking us to Friday lunch
And making sure we were a happy bunch;
For always offering a helping hand;
For making even gray days grand;
For a thousand big and little favors;
For your friendship that never waivers;
We thank you, and just want to say,
You sure do brighten every day.

     Well, not exactly to wit. It was more like half-wit, or nitwit. You see, when I finished the poem, I read it over many, many, many times until I was satisfied there were no embarrassing errors. Then I printed it up, waited until Dennis was out driving the bus, and took the poem to Shirley at the front desk. She said she’d show it to Jim, and if he liked it, she’d make a copy on colorful paper.
     Apparently, Shirley and Jim enjoyed the poem. And at dinner Monday, Jo, who had concocted the idea of writing something for Dennis, went around the dining room asking residents to sign the fancy-schmancy sheet of paper with the poem on it. Eventually, she got to me.
    If I learned anything in my ten years with the Star Beacon it was that the easiest way to spot mistakes in my game story was to read it in the next day’s paper. A misspelling that had escaped my notice when I repeatedly read the piece the night before would jump right out of the paper and choke me as I drank my coffee. The instant Jo handed me the poem to sign, my stupidity became apparent – or more than normally apparent, some might say. The flaw in my gem was suddenly so obvious it might as well have been printed in bold type – seventy-two point bold. In the last line I’d typed “brightened” instead of “brighten.”
     “Jo, I made a mistake.”
      “I know,” she said. “I’m a retired English teacher. I noticed it right away.”
      “I’ve saved it on the computer. It will take me two seconds to fix it.” I said. “Shirley is still here. I’ll be right back with a good copy.”
      “But almost everyone has signed this,” she said. “It will be OK. No one noticed. Nobody said anything.”
     So it turns out, forty-seven years after walking across the stage with my diploma from BPHS, I’ve met an English teacher who says, as I did in 1966, “So what? It doesn’t matter. No one will notice. Nobody cares.” But in 2013, I’m convinced that it does matter, that people will notice, that they will care and that they will pass me in the hall and whisper to their friends, “That guy doesn’t know ‘brighten’ from ‘brightened.’ What an idiot!”
     Oh, where are all the fastidious, persnickety, never-end-a-sentence-with-a-preposition, never-split-an-infinitive English teachers when I need one?

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