Confessions of a Former Pedant

I guess they’re called formative years for a reason. I attended a Catholic grade school throughout the early 1970s, up through eighth grade graduation.

Now, the Catholic schools of my parents’ era were the settings of stories of nuns sternly forbidding patent leather shoes because they reflected up a girl’s skirt. Theirs was the era of rulers cracking knuckles and boards blistering bottoms. That was their era, not mine.

I really can’t say, having had no other reference point, whether my experience is simply a ’70s era grade school experience, or if it’s tinted by having been within the realm of Catholic education. No way to know.

But I learned how to write cursive and subtract where I had to borrow, and while I was at it, I learned some catechism along the way. Somewhere between my luck of a healthy intellect and my own spirit of wanting to please people, I managed to become a fairly successful student.

At least I was in the advanced track. I’m not sure what we did differently from the other two tracks, but there I was, in the same group of students, promoted up another grade each year. (Funny, I used to sneak a peak at my report card while carrying it home on the last day of school, worried that I’d have to repeat a grade.)

Somehow the pride of school and church was infused into us and the authority of our teachers somehow seemed strengthened by the fact they had the backing of the Church and the school both. They told us about the catacombs and the crusades, and I didn’t understand it all, being little, but I got the impression that without us Catholics, the traditions of Jesus might have been lost.

Now I’ve since then studied some theology and read the Bible and read some original sources in the area of religious thought, so please don’t think I’m mistakenly trying to sound self-important. I’m just trying to show the aura around the school when I was a kid. Okay, maybe “aura” isn’t a good word. Let’s say a sense of the authority and pomp and circumstance is what I felt.

I didn’t realize that anybody in particular thought we had any potential until in fifth grade when our English teacher, Sister Mathilda, told us that we were “the cream of the crop.” Now that’s a pretty old-fashioned phrase, and I’m not from a farming community, but I got the idea it was a good thing.

It was Sister Mathilda who picked up that metal trash can from the corner of the classroom, put it on her desk, and proceeded to teach us about prepositions.

She must’ve had a wadded up piece of paper, too, because we learned every single, possible relationship that piece of paper could have had to the trash can – in it, on it, around it, outside it, beneath it, above it, under it. Over, under, sideways, down, Sister Mathilda taught us our prepositions.

That was over 25 years ago. Apparently it was a memorable class.

So began my training in grammar, and the beginning of my obsession with words. In sixth grade, I started reading the dictionary for fun. Years later, as a sophomore in high school, I actually looked forward to English class and liked the grammar and spelling more than reading and discussing. At this point, I suppose it wouldn’t surprise you to know I later elected to take a course in grammar my freshman year in college.

I became a good, solid writer as far as writing those position papers for sophomore English. That kind of emphasis on grammar and organization helped in paper-writing later for university classes. It seemed a breeze.

And it seemed so much more important than it was. Because, despite my easy-going personality otherwise, I was a pedantic writer. Somehow over the years, I equated anything less-than-perfect on spelling or grammar as less-than-intelligent. I’ve tried to explain how that may have been ingrained in me, in us, by our teachers as a matter of pride. But it doesn’t serve my purposes any more.

Not so long ago, I was in one of those touchy-feely training sessions we all are ushered off to occasionally at work. Some basic review on communication skills: all good stuff. Me, I was distracted by the repeated proofreading errors. I mean, I was listening and fully participating in the session, but I began to simmer inside at the “insult” of the unknown writers who put the materials together.

I began circling spelling errors. Wouldn’t you know it, even the word “accurate” had been misspelled and missed on the proofreading. It’s funny, really, but I was slightly ticked.

I think that the day of that little skills review session, I really learned a lesson. Or at least the lesson I had needed to learn was cemented, and I’m thankful for it.

The gist of it is that I’m not any better because I can spell or that I have a feel for grammar or that a particular kind of pedantic writing had always come easily for me. And somebody’s not worse because they have left out one “c” in the word “accurate”.

It doesn’t matter, because a quick spellcheck on any wordprocessor can usually fix the little mistake. But beyond that it doesn’t matter, because what is important is what is being communicated, not how. Not how.

But grammar and spelling can be taught, that’s what I’m saying. What some people have that I was devaluing, was a wealth of original ideas and life experience and joy and the spirit of sharing. Those things can’t be learned by rote.

And it was that class, and it is this site that have really driven home the fact that I feel I’ve learned a lesson over the past few years. I’ve learned to listen, without prejudice, to people’s wisdom, to their life experiences.

Because, really, the things I used to think were important were just a matter of proofreading. Proofreading can be taught. Life must be lived.

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