If a nickel were had by me. . . .

yoda english class

It makes little sense that  I remember her fondly. She was cranky and dour. The thunder of her condescendingly didactic reprimands belied her tiny, withering frame. Very early in our acquaintance, I came to appreciate that she was justified in the less flattering traits. They are the reasons I smile when she comes to mind.

I wasn’t in the habit of giving my professors nicknames, but for whatever reason, in no way intentionally connected to a former First Lady, the name Lady Bird occurred to me and I couldn’t make it stop occurring.  Her husband then was Mr. Bird.

When she couldn’t hear what we were saying, it was Mr. Bird’s fault because he’d forgotten to change the battery in her hearing aid. You got the sense that, unless his hearing were similarly uncharged,  Mr. Bird would be getting an earful when class was over.

Mr. Bird was already retired, while she had to eek out one last lousy semester due to changes in the university’s retirement system. As much as she had loved her work, she didn’t want to be slogging through Chaucer with another group of unappreciative 20-somethings any more than most of us wanted to be there. She had things she wanted to do in life. We were suffocating her.

Having grown up with a vision-impaired parent, I understood her crankiness born of  her inability to be as fully engaged as she would have liked.

Having things I wanted to do in life, I understood her impatience with having to eek  out one last lousy semester.

One day she stood at the front of the class and recited the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English. Recited, not read.

I followed along in the text and as best I could tell, she nailed it.  She had every right to be condescendingly didactic. Boy, did she know her Chaucer.

She amused me, fascinated me, and terrified me. These days, I couldn’t recite more than the first line  from the Prologue (something to do with April showers), but the best and worst thing Lady Bird did was to leave an imprint in my consciousness about passive voice.  Whenever I see or hear it, I think of Lady Bird and I wish I had a nickel.

When she returned our first set of papers, she was livid. Livid, I tell you.

In total disgust, she complained at a volume that indicated Mr. Bird had shirked his battery-changing duties yet again,  “If I had a nickel for every time you people used passive voice, I could retire today.”

I was amused. And terrified. And fascinated.

What on earth was passive voice? Was I guilty? What was so bad about it that this diminutive, otherwise harmless academic would be so enraged by it? In those days, you had to find a grammar book or go to the library to figure this out.  Times were tough.

I scoured my paper. No comments about passive voice.  Did that mean I wasn’t guilty, or had she just grown tired of writing about it by the time she got to my dribble?

And so it went with the next set of papers. Same complaint.

. . .If I had a nickel for every time you people used the passive voice, I could retire today.

A professor’s pension

If I was one of the passive aggressors, I was starting to feel a bit guilty about not paying up, thereby keeping this woman from enjoying her golden years. If I wasn’t one of them, I was starting to get indignant with them on her behalf.

She never told us what passive voice was. I don’t know whether that was  because she considered that the responsibility of composition teachers, who had very clearly failed us, or if she just didn’t hear us asking.  Her job was to teach us medieval English literature and to get through this last lousy semester.

I don’t know how many papers we wrote, but every time she handed them back, we got the nickel speech.  Eventually it was more amusing than terrifying.

At the end of the semester, I bought a decorative jar and we filled it with nickels to present to her with a cake and some flowers.  Lady Bird spent that last class telling us about her plans, which sounded more like work to me, but work that she was passionate about.

I like to think that when we wished her well and thanked her for the semester, she heard every word.

54 thoughts on “If a nickel were had by me. . . .

  1. I think a lot of professors would have retired in place, showing up and going through the motions just to collect a check. (I had a professor like that. Some days he’d show up, some days he wouldn’t. One day, he called the secretary and said a train was blocking the road. Another time, he said his cat had fallen asleep on the car and he didn’t want to wake it. But, I digress.) You’re lucky to have had had a professor who still gave a damn, and you were incredibly thoughtful to have given her a jar of nickels. I hope she appreciated the gesture!

    • As I recall, it was fairly common practice to try to register for the class of a professor who might not show.
      It’s been so long I don’t remember the situation, but it seems to me that Lady Bird wasn’t supposed to be teaching that semester. They called her back for some reason.

      I was indeed fortunate to have her. She’s the second “real life” person I’ve written about that I didn’t realize at the time was making a lasting impression on me.

    • Todd, a cat falling asleep on the car has got to be the best bad excuse ever. That professor may not have taught you anything but I’m guessing you got a lot of mileage out of those bad professor stories.

  2. I hadda Eng prof in college. Almost flunked out and had to change majors. Tall, slender, long narrow pointed nose, pale, beady eyed, a character certainly out of some unwritten Hawthorne novel. For a required linguistics course(I have no idea what it was about to this day even after a BA and 2 MAs) the pretest and post test were the same. I got an 8% on the pre test and a 66% on the final but he still gave me an F. Technically he was right – need 70% for a D. In in 33 years of high school teaching a kid that made that much progress always got an A+ from me despite the grade scale. He did teach me how to be fair to people by being so unfair to me. That was 1969 and grades like this from professors like this almost got me a ticket to Vietnam. They have no word in the Eng language to describe what I think of such professors.

    • Ha — I imagined Ichabod Crane!James Fenimore Cooper – close enough to Hawthorne. :-)

      I loved linguistics, but unless you’re going to be a linguistics professor, it’s not all that practical.

      Sometimes — often — I toy with the idea of going back to teaching and if I did, I think teaching history would be more fun. Seems to be a lot of crossover between English and history teachers.

  3. Hipster, you’ve totally fascinated me by your description of Lady Bird. Why, she could have been one of my English professors! I love that she wasn’t just marking time that last lousy semester, but was continuing to challenge and prod her students the way she always had. And I love that y’all “rewarded” her with a cake and a jar of nickels — bet she remembered that for a long time!

  4. What a beautifully written tribute to your former professor. I love that you gave her a jar of nickels!
    And I also love that your title is in passive voice.

  5. Makes you wonder what she’d doing today? Your gift of nickels is superb. She probably inadvertently taught you to keep the passive out of your writing.

  6. I like the passive voice. Obviously it’s not as forceful or as definitive as the active voice, but sometimes we need it because we don’t know who’s performing the action. Or because the earlier sentence was active, and using passive voice now adds rhythm. I do think it’s demonized these days. Just like the split-infinitive and the don’t-end-sentences-with-a-preposition ‘rules’.
    If I had a teacher like that, I’d use passive voice a little more just to piss her off. And hey, she could retire early.
    Nice write-up.

    • Thank you.

      I used to have two talks with “my kids” at the beginning of the year. One was on the first day of class and how by now (high school) they knew the rules of classroom behavior so we weren’t going to waste time coming up with the rules for our classroom: it all came down to two words — choices and consequences. They knew the choices they could make in any given situation and they knew what the consequences would be. But I digress!

      The other talk would be at about the time of the first writing lesson and I would explain that we were together for a reason: my job was to teach them the rules and their job was to demonstrate that they knew the rules and would apply them in the appropriate context (formal assignments). “If you show me you know the rules, it’s fine with me when you break ‘em.” We had a lot of other talks about “the power language” and stuff. . . I miss them.

      Anyway…

      There’s a final preposition in that post that bothers me. An old friend and I had an inside joke that came from an episode of the tv show “Cheers.” The way to fix it is to follow the preposition with “Mullethead.” That might be a post of its own.

      And finally (hey, are you sighing in relief? ‘Sup with that?!). . .

      I made a lame joke about split infinitives to a friend the other day. I don’t think he got it and now he thinks I’m weird(er). I split them all the time.

  7. ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ or ‘Why was the road crossed by the chicken?’
    Yes, I can see why the passive voice is frowned upon, though it certainly works for Yoda, I think.

  8. I recently heard this podcast by Mignon Fogarty (who popularly goes as grammar girl). She listed this ‘holy-writ’ like rule of passive voice as one of the greatest myths of grammar. Being a graduate student, I have to write a lot of scientific papers. So, passive voice is like glucose to me. That having said, when I am writing non-technical stuff, I like to play around with both voices: I like the feeling of urgency that active voice gives and use a combination of both to make the writing lively.
    Well-written!

    • Thank you! (I’m sorry your comment went to spam. I rescued it.)

      I break the rules all the time, usually intentionally and for effect. You’ll find sentence fragments throughout my blog. Like this. And this!

      As an almost-graduate level English professor, she did have a point. We were all English majors, most of whom were in training to become teachers. For a literary analysis, passive voice probably wasn’t acceptable. There are times, though, when it’s unavoidable. As is ending sentences with prepositions.

      • Merriam-Webster says that ending sentences with prepositions is okey-dokey, that the rule is a myth, myth! (yeth?) Knowing that, I still wouldn’t do it on a job application or something equally important for fear of looking dumb, I would.

  9. Ahh! Spam! No wonder my comment vanished the first time. Actually, it vanished the second time too! Sorry for the double comment; I didn’t mean to jam the thread.
    As for ending sentences with prepositions, It’s something I’m proud of ;)

  10. It’s amazing how influential those teachers were. Did they understand they would be with us the rest of our lives? Sometimes even more prominent than our own parents? I don’t usually struggle with the passive voice as most of my writing is in the first person. It limits you but just seems more… energetic to me. Anyway, I loved this. Glad you reprinted it. Thanks!

    • You’re so right about their influence. I wrote that back in January, which is more than 30 seconds ago so my memory is sketchy. I started to write about something entirely different and somehow that just wanted to come out. I wouldn’t say she was my favorite teacher or the one who most influenced me, but in that moment, her memory came through.

  11. I have so little formal training in English. I thought Chaucer is something you put under a teacup. hehehe

    I wish I knew more, and had more education in English. I admire your learned-ness! Carry on and keep it coming.

    • If you say (or write) something and I understand it the way you meant for me to understand it, then you are formally trained in English. You did. I do. So, it’s all good! (and thank you)…

  12. Explaining passive voice is SUCH a pain, though. At least, I have a terrible time at it. But I tend to shut down when I have to explain grammar. “It’s… I don’t know… you know… bad and like it’s not active… just don’t do it, okay?”

  13. I had to begin by reading the linked post about passive voice. I couldn’t for the life of me remember using “passive voice”, or even how to recognize it if it showed up in my kitchen. Halfway through the article, I started to get confused. Soon after, my eyes started to really glaze over and I stopped reading.

    Have you heard the cautionary tale about the centipede who thought too much? He was trucking down the road lickety-split when a Japanese beetle stopped him to ask, “How do you know which foot to move next?” Now, the centipede never had thought about he walked, but the beetle seemed to think it important, so he started thinking.

    He thought and he thought, and the more he thought the more befuddled he became. He moved one foot and then the other, but all of his thinking had tangled his hundred feet so badly he fell over onto his back and never moved again.

    The end.

    Now, as for your teacher – that’s a sweetheart, right there. I imagine her looking like Miss Wilcox, my 8th and 9th grade Latin teacher, a diminuitive little gray-headed thing. But I hear her sounding exactly like Sarah Gracie Brown, my biology teacher. Mrs. Brown was 18 feet tall with eyes like Bunsen burners, and she never would have used the passive voice. Ever.

    I’m so glad Lady Bird got her nickels. I’ll bet she never spent a one of them.

  14. This is a great story! I just tried reading something I wrote four years ago and I couldn’t get through a single paragraph without cringing from all the passive voice usage. I gave up after about four pages.

    I would have owed Lady Bird a LOT of nickels.

    As it is I think I owe blogging my first born.

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