“So, I read your papers,” said Mr. Yang. “How many times do I have to tell you, folks, never to start a sentence with a conjunction?” he asked, tapping at rule number one on the board.
He stood stoop-shouldered in front of the class of 7th-graders.
Pointing at the second rule, “And reminded you about dangling prepositions?” he surveyed the sea of faces. “How many times do I have to?”
He’d been teaching English for twenty-five years. This year retirement could have been possible, but the second mortgage to finance his children’s college costs still had not been paid off.
He jabbed at the third rule on the board.
“Know what this one’s about? Run-on sentences? Anyone?”
Looking out over the room he saw faces not so eager for knowledge staring back at him, a pity, a tragedy, really, and hardly motivational for someone who’d given his life to educating young minds, only to find, what, that they didn’t want to be educated, so why did he keep doing this anyway, kind of a mystery, perhaps an insoluble one?
“An example? Anyone? No?”
“This one?” He pointed to number four. “A sentence fragment. Example. Someone.”
Blank stares met his call for a volunteer.
Walter, sitting slouched in the back row, looked down in his lap as Mr. Yang surveyed the faces of his most recalcitrant audience members in the rear. Always texting. The kind of kids who don’t want to be there, wish they were home gaming on their computers, or shooting hoops, or surfing, or doing anything that wasn’t about school, wasn’t about grammar, wasn’t about anything academic, at least not academic in the usual sense, their academy the one outside of school, and, well, was that really so bad if they were learning something? Who knew?
“Ah, Mister Galiza. Example of a sentence fragment, please.”
Walter looked to the left and then the right, then pointed at himself.
“Yes, Mister Galiza, yes. Is there any other Mister Galiza in the back row to ask that of?”
Walter nodded, then shook his head, then nodded again.
Shaking his head and then nodding, Mr. Yang said, “Okay, Mister Galiza. Now, just one single sentence fragment, please.”
Walter looked up at the ceiling, rubbing his chin.
“And?” asked Mr. Yang.
Walter hesitated and then offered, “Can’t.”
Mr. Yang’s eyes narrowed. He wondered what to say to this response. Then, “Is that your answer or are you saying there’s not one you can come up with?”
Walter stared at him. “Answer to,” he said, hesitating. Then nothing.
Was that a question? Mr. Yang wondered. He couldn’t decide. “Okay, Mister Galiza, please just tell me, when you say ‘Can’t’, is that an example you’re giving me of what a sentence fragment is, or are you saying that you can’t think of an example?”
Walter shrugged his shoulders. “And I say?”
“And you say your answer, Walter. Is it?”
Walter stared at him. “Can’t?”
His frustration level peeking, Mr. Yang dropped his head in resignation. Then he looked at his oracular student. “It’s ironic, Walter. Do you see? I don’t believe you know the answer, yes? But you’re giving me examples that are the correct answer. Everything you just said illustrates what we’re talking about.”
“Oh,” said Walter smiling. “Then I do get ‘um, yeah, Mister Yang. Can.”
Mr. Yang tilted his head and smiled quizzically. “Well, Walter, okay. Okay, yes, let’s say you got it, Mister Galiza.”
The bell rang. Everyone gathered up their books and headed for the hallway. Walter was the last one out. In the doorway, he turned and gave Mr. Yang a shaka sign. “Thanks, yeah, Mister Y. I guess I learned.”
Mr. Yang smiled and nodded. “Yes. Good work, Walter.”
After all, he had, hadn’t he? Mr. Yang thought that could be the case. Maybe. It was great when you could connect with the kids in the back.
Walter took off. Mr. Yang turned, picked up the eraser, and rubbed at the words, but they wouldn’t erase, just stayed there, a worryingly permanent reminder of some very important rules of grammar, like carved in granite, and he hated to leave a board not erased for the next teacher, who would need to use it for class, usually. He pressed harder. Nothing. A magic marker instead of a whiteboard pen. Someone had switched it. But who would be so mean as to want to? The usual suspects, of course. The last rowers. But please, he thought hopefully, not Walter, at least not today.