By Don Sorchych | July 23, 2008
I heard a joke recently that brought back memories of out-of-school grammar training I received as a child.
A blond woman visited a friend, and said, “Where is your husband at?” The other woman replied, “You don’t finish sentences with a preposition.” The blond said, “OK, where is your husband at, bitch!”
Schyler Irwin counted that as his pet peeve, among many others. Irwin was a next door neighbor where I grew up, and he could be seen reading under a lamp every night on their enclosed porch.
After he digested the news of the day, he would amble over to our house and regurgitate what he had read to my Dad.
Dad was a good listener and he nodded his head as Irwin rambled. Dad had jumped out the window while in eighth grade to escape the beating administered by a nun at parochial school, ending his formal education.
Dad went to granddad’s butcher shop and explained why he wasn’t in school. Granddad Anton said, “Put on this apron. Your school days are over.”
Irwin had been a school superintendent and somehow migrated to our town and worked in the administrative office. Employees who had white collar jobs were called “big shots” by the many blue collar workers who labored in the local zinc refinery.
I don’t think the appellation of big shot was a slur; it was a grudging respect, a distinction with a bit of envy.
I made the mistake of asking, in Irwin’s presence, where my mother was at.
He became apoplectic, and said, “Exactly what does “at” add to what you said?” And he began to recite rules of grammar from memory, while my Dad stoically sat there without expression or comment.
The lecture seemed a lifetime, and I never forgot, nor did Irwin let me. Irwin was a couch potato and never lifted a finger to do anything except work, read, eat and sleep. My mother volunteered my services to wash their windows and mow their lawn, for which I was forbidden to take a dime.
This meant frequent meetings around the Irwin household with reminders and new admonitions about my grammar. I took to mumbling to avoid the tongue lashings.
Barry Young, KFYI talk show host, was speaking about Barack Hussein Obama’s concern that polls showed he was weak among white women voters and pledged to do something about it.
Young said Obama was heard to say, “Where are all the white women at?” Too bad Irwin is in heaven lecturing one and all about their grammar, he could help.
Of course, good grammar in Depue, Illinois in the late 30’s and early 40’s wasn’t culturally acceptable to class mates and so use of big words led to fist fights, or two styles of speaking.
But thanks to the New Jersey Zinc Company, the only employer in the town of 2,500, there was a fine high school and excellent teachers. The benevolent company also made sure it had a doctor in town.
The high school English teacher was Highland Wiseman. Wiseman was about five-foot ten inches tall and weighed maybe 100 pounds. Her long dresses hung on her skeletal frame.
Although I was a cut-up and spent many hours being lectured at by the principal, I behaved in her class and got straight A’s.
In my freshman year there was an out-of-control student named Jesus Moreno, who was a couple of years older and doing remedial English in Wiseman’s class.
One day he was swearing. Highland walked over to him and told him to shut up. When he stood up with his fists balled she decked him with a bony fist. He dropped like a sack of wheat. When he groggily got up she grabbed his shirt collar and led him to the principal’s office. He went meekly without a word.
No goofing off there, so why not listen and learn? After that incident, you could hear a pin drop for the entire semester.
Can you imagine what the ACLU would do with that today?
At the University of Illinois I had a professor for a couple of Electrical Engineering courses named George Anner. Anner asked for a show of hands at the beginning of each semester. The question was, “How many of you are in remedial English?”
More than half of the class reluctantly raised their hands. Thanks to Highland Wiseman, I didn’t have to raise my hand.
“Ok,” he said, “now, although I have no doubt you are going to be great engineers, that is if we don’t flunk you out, you won’t be a great anything if you can’t communicate. So I’m going to work on your English in your lab reports and I’m going to give you enough vocabulary so you will sound educated.”
A few groans. “It will be fun. I promise,” he said.
Anner used words several times in every class and would say, “Now that is a word, isn’t it?” and ask for the meaning. Then he would quickly explain its origin and move on to technical topics.
It was novel and quite a hit once students got used to it. The red marks on lab reports were fewer and fewer as the semester advanced.
I have no doubt Anner’s part-time but original teaching method got students out of remedial English and removed a threat of a late graduation.
Back to Depue, the town no one has ever heard of. I mentioned the New Jersey Zinc Company’s benevolence. The Depue plant once was their hedge against union strikes in their main plant. Depue’s obituary was written when WW II veterans returned and formed a union.
They began a gradual shut down, then sold the plant to Mobil Oil. Years of processing toxic zinc byproducts like lead and cadmium have resulted in Super Fund Site status.
Considerable work has been done to mitigate the pollution, but it is widespread. Even so, the state of Illinois is attempting to bring new industry to the site. The state website says Senator’s Durbin and Obama gave their blessings.