Barry’s Story

An Epiphany from Parsing and Naming of Parts

Squint-eyed, sitting at his desk with upper torso hunched over, elbow resting flatly against the desk top, pencil in hand, paper underneath pencil, Barry, one of the 10th-graders in my below average English class my first year teaching English many years ago, was about to take the ultimate test.

He and the rest of his class were about to write what I hoped would be, after having received from me careful instruction in a six week unit on the parsing of sentences and the naming of all their parts, the very best sentence they had written in their lives. Ever.

In that first few weeks of that first year of my teaching career, I had discovered the severity of the writing problems of Barry and his class. They couldn’t write essays. So I tried paragraphs. They couldn’t write paragraphs. So I decided to try sentences.

Actually, I didn’t have a clue how to teach writing: all I had done was tell them to write–assign writing rather than teach writing–and harp on the importance and joys of writing.

The harping wasn’t helping.

Like so many in the profession, I expected students to write better, without doing anything other than coaching and cheering them on from the sidelines. Francis Christensen, that linguistic sage, told the hard truth: “In composition courses we do not really teach our captive charges to write better–we merely expect them to” (p. 129).

He was right. I had no idea how to teach somebody to write any more than I would know how to teach somebody to grow hair. No teacher had ever taught me how to write, with one exception: I do recall with great clarity and certainty being instructed in where to place the return and inside addresses in a business letter. But, as the Bard says, the rest was silence.

What could I do for Barry and his ilk, my needful students who were clueless, wordless, skill-less? Grammar! But of course! Barry’s class, before they could write, needed a grammar tonic, a dose of vitamins A to V–adjective to verb! (Clearly, I hadn’t heard about the research yet—you know, the conclusion that teaching grammar has little effect on students’ writing.)

I had taught Barry’s class nouns, verbs, and the usual linguistic litany entombed in grammar textbooks since Gutenberg. We parsed. We named and underlined parts. We conjugated and cogitated. We even learned moral laws of grammar and usage, including the heinousness of fragments and comma splices (mortal sins), and the horrors of split infinitives, unparallel series, danglers and squinters (venial sins). For a special treat, I interjected comic relief, tidbits amusing yet instructive, to illustrate how funny but foolish sentences became if writers slipped and sloppily committed a grammatical gaff: “The infant ate the baby food her mother gave her, and then she drank a beer.” (Sin: ambiguous pronoun) Ha.

Six weeks later we put the period on the sentence unit, laying it to rest.

The terminal activity was the writing of one wonderful sentence: pristine, pertinent, pithy–and parsible, a sentence unlike any they had ever written. In one perverse way of looking at it, Barry did not disappoint. His sentence was, sadly, unlike any he had ever written, as you will soon see.

The big day arrived. I gave Barry’s class the entire fifty-minute period to plan, write, rewrite, polish, and perfect their single sentences.

And now came Barry’s test, but also mine–a test of my effectiveness as a rookie English teacher, earnestly but ignorantly teaching the hodgepodge called “English.”

Barry’s pencil was precariously poised to write that world-class sentence. When his pencil hit the paper line, my professional life was on the firing line.

As the class wrote, throughout the labor I observed Barry, the true test: unable to read beyond 3rd grade level, capable of no more than grunts during class discussions.

Now, however, deep in seeming concentration, he sat at his desk studying the blank lines on the paper before him, sometimes gazing at the ceiling as if to catch the muse in flight. Then, suddenly, his hand dashing out the words given to him by the ceiling muse, his pencil moving determinedly across the lines of the paper, eyes focusing on the words taking shape, Barry wrote his memorable sentence.

Here it is, the first time to see print. (I wouldn’t have dared earlier.)
The elephant is a slow person.
Y-I-K-E-S! On the hellish road of best intentions, I had shattered Barry’s already fragile thought process.

Over the following weekend, I graded their sentences. Although none equaled Barry’s absurdity, many, sadly, came close. The best sentence said something about the sky being blue and really, really pretty, but at least it made sense. Sometimes the sky is blue and pretty, really pretty. (Good. At least this thought process was still intact.)

That weekend I considered quitting teaching and enlisting in the Army, to spend my life in trenches of a different sort.

Barry had not failed. I had. I had assumed that, after all that naming of sentence parts and parsing of sentences, Barry would be cured of what Christensen called “syntactic anemia.” I was wrong. He still had that disease, but I had added to it premature dementia: “Barry, elephants are slow animals, not slow people!” My poor, doubly-infirm Barry.

I had to find a cure.

Having decided against enlisting in the Army, I enlisted instead in a new campaign–to right the wrongs I had ignorantly inflicted upon my students.

I flushed out my mind.

Unaided by grammar books, workbooks, teacher’s manuals, I took a fresh look at the process of writing, inspired by a wonderful little book I was currently reading: Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. At the beginning of a chapter, I was struck by one of her sentences.

Here is what she wrote:

This is a snail shell, round, full, and glossy as a horse chestnut.

That sentence, I thought, is what I had had in mind for Barry to write, a sentence rich in texture, structure, and thought. I picked up a pencil and wrote one like it, describing the first object my eyes landed on in my humble, rented furnished room–a cup of coffee.

Here is what I wrote:

There is a cup of coffee, hot, rich, and refreshing as a hot shower.

Imitating Lindbergh’s sentence took all of one minute.

Then I thought, what would happen if I asked Barry’s class to imitate the same model, Lindbergh’s model sentence?

The next day I did exactly that, but first I showed them my imitation of Lindbergh’s sentence as an example. Then we, working together, wrote an imitation describing a book. And finally–the true test, which once again Barry was about to take–I asked each student to write an imitation.

Here is what Barry wrote–this time:

Here is an American flag, striped, colorful, and starry as a night sky.

This is a snail shell, round, full, and glossy as a horse chestnut. There is a cup of coffee, hot, rich, and refreshing as a hot shower. Here is an American flag, striped, colorful, and starry as a night sky.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh
professional writer
Don Killgallon
rookie English teacher
a 10th grade student, Killgallon’s savior

Imitating Lindbergh’s sentence took Barry all of two minutes! In an instant, Barry had killed his elephant who was a slow person! In that same instant, I had been redeemed. An apple for me–finally!

In that sudden symbiosis, that unlikely partnership, between Lindbergh the writer/mentor and Barry the student, I had finally found a fertile field. And the seed planted there by Barry quickly took root, shot up, and grew into an approach to teaching writing I call “sentence composing.” Over the years, Heinemann has published sentence-composing textbooks by me and my wife for other Barrys and countless other students.

Thank you, Barry, for the epiphany, through which you changed a morphed elephant, grotesquely rendered, into a beautiful flag, described like a pro.