In her moment of failure, Sister Eleanor had succeeded in teaching us that what we feel modifies us.
“If you never feel goodly, then you must never feel badly,” sturdy little Sister Eleanor told our 6th grade class. Sister believed good grammar would protect us from life’s evil influences, which, in those days, were Communists and public school kids who chewed gum.
She realized that if grammar was going to be our armor, she had to teach us to wear it joyfully. That’s why she made up rowdy games for us. We ran to the blackboard to compete in diagramming races; we shouted drills filled with grammatical and, for me, personal truths.
When we chanted, “If I were he, if I were she ...,” the subjunctive was taunting me about my failure to become Janie Reilly. She was our best diagrammer, faultlessly leading her row to victory in our blackboard races.
Even when making up time that slower kids had lost, she began by looking along the ledge for the longest piece of chalk. While the rest of us struggled with broken stubs, Janie held that long, white chalk gracefully between her fingers and created masterpieces. First she wrote the subject and verb elegantly on top of a horizontal line, then their modifiers appeared almost instantly below them on slanting lines. If she was far enough ahead, she used the blackboard eraser as a ruler to make her lines perfectly straight.
The day of our lesson about feeling bad, Janie headed for the blackboard just ahead of Tommy Hart. He stopped behind her, watching what she wrote. Then he walked coolly to his place at the blackboard and copied her work. He kept walking back and forth, checking what she was writing, then boldly copying it. All of us in our seats were laughing. The kids at the blackboard caught on and began watching him. When he finished, he turned around and grinned; who could resist him? He was—as he had been since 1st grade—the class ideal of charm and good looks.
Even Sister Eleanor smiled, but she made him explain the diagram. “Why is ‘bad’ a predicate adjective?” she asked him.
“Because it comes after feel. Feel connects words to the subject. That’s why bad is good.”
Tommy’s smile began with all of us, but ended with Janie. She was the subject, the one all sentences were about, and he was the bold action verb. I was just a dangling participle. Around me the class was chanting another drill, “I feel bad, you feel bad. ...”
The race was over, and Sister had moved from predicate words to objects. She stood at the blackboard explaining to us, “The object receives the action.” She picked up a book and turned her back on us to give a demonstration.
“The book hit the blackboard. Class, what’s the object?” she asked.
“The blackboard.” “The book.” It didn’t matter to us, we’d just become involved in a game more engrossing than all of Sister’s drills. Tommy Hart had written a note, then folded it so that the corners matched perfectly and passed it to his best friend, Chuck Campbell. The note kept going so carefully from boy to boy without anyone opening it, that we realized it had to be for a girl.
I imagined Larry Lampton, who sat in front of me, guardedly reaching back without turning around and handing it to me. I imagined opening it.
When the note headed down my row, Sister was still writing on the blackboard. “The book hit the blackboard,” she repeated. “What’s the object?” She tapped the book on the blackboard, hinting broadly. More jumbled response.
She slammed the book into the blackboard. “What received the action?” she asked, turning around to face the class. Behind her the old slate blackboard began cracking at the same moment my dreams dissolved. Larry Lampton leaned across the aisle and put the note on Janie Reilly’s desk.
The tears in my eyes made things blurry when I looked up to see little chunks of slate falling off the blackboard. Sister was perfectly silent. For a brief moment, she seemed to me more than a small woman with a jowly face squished out of shape by her medieval headdress; she seemed like a person, trying to prepare us for life. And we didn’t even know what the object was.
I looked around and saw that the whole class was still. In her moment of failure, Sister Eleanor had succeeded in teaching us that what we feel modifies us. And everyone in the room knew it. We all felt bad.