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.
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.