Just the other day, I heard that my Jr. High English teacher passed away. I hadn’t thought about this woman for 20 years, but I find myself sad, just thinking about her passing. The world has lost a truly great teacher.
I didn’t always think she was so fantastic. When I found out that she was going to be my 7th grade Language Arts teacher, I was actually disappointed. Mrs. Miller was old – probably in her early sixties at that time – and she had a reputation for being the toughest teacher in the school. She expected you to do what you were supposed to do, and she didn’t accept excuses. Her class was hard. She taught grammar, spelling, and reading, and she demanded that no matter what else was going on in our hormonally imbalanced, adolescent minds, we must always honor the English language.
She didn’t use the standard text books, or follow the normal curriculum. We read books, magazines, and newspapers. We wrote essays every week, and whatever spelling errors were found in those papers became the next week’s spelling test, and heaven forbid you misspelled those words again. We were expected to tutor 3rd graders who needed assistance with reading or English skills, and we would have to research lesson plans and come up with teaching tools to help the younger children learn. But what stands out most in my mind about Mrs. Miller’s class was the way she taught grammar. She made us diagram sentences.
Our early forays into these diagrams consisted of simple sentences taken out of books or newspaper articles, but as we got better at it, the sentences became much more complex. She would have us diagram sentences out of financial contracts, or the fine print located in the bottom of an ad. She taught us that if you took the time to figure out what was being modified by each clause, and if you understood the object of each preposition, you could make sense of the most technical and seemingly unintelligible paragraphs.
I was lucky enough to have Mrs. Miller as my teacher two years in a row. She always pushed us to expand our minds, and never limited her class to things that were solely the property of the English Department. The project that I remember most from her class, was diagramming the Declaration of Independence onto those huge rolls of paper that you never find outside of a school. We ended up covering the walls of an entire hall with those diagrams. I have taken many history classes since then, and none taught me more about the mindset of the founders of our country than I learned in Mrs. Miller’s English class.
While I was thinking about this post, I googled sentence diagrams, and found that Mrs. Miller was not the only person crazy enough to try diagramming the Declaration of Independence. I was able to find an example to share with you of what the first sentence from the preamble looks like when it is diagrammed.
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
There were never many teachers like Mrs. Miller around, and in this world of teaching to the test and No Child Left Behind, there probably are fewer still. But I hope that at some point everyone encounters a teacher like her. Someone who challenges you. Someone who encourages you. Someone who you remember for the rest of your life.
Thank you, Mrs. Miller. I will never forget you.