Or, how seventh grade saved my life
OK, perhaps “saved my life” is a bit strong, but there’s no denying that seventh grade was pretty pivotal in my education. Seventh-grade English, to be exact, and no, not because Ms. Saleeby was cute and actually nice to a younger and gawkier version of yours truly. It was in English class that dear Ms. Saleeby taught the future movers and shakers of Travelers Rest, S.C., two important things for getting on in this world: how to debate and how to diagram sentences.
I think that the populace of Henderson, N.C., could use a refresher course in both. Because of the debate training? Maybe. You don’t have to visit too many council meetings to discover that “Robert’s Rules of Order” isn’t such a bad book, after all. Eight parts council members, one part mayor, two parts civility and one part order; mix all together and bake for the duration of a council meeting – voila!
But it’s actually the diagramming sentences part of the class that is necessary for our community. Diagramming sentences was indubitably the boot camp of English: It was grinding work and boring, with no real promise of reward (unless you count that smile from Ms. Saleeby – wow). And there was progression in it, too: Simple noun-verb sentences were easy, but then you throw in noun-verb-direct object, and then noun-verb-direct object-prepositional phrase. Where does a predicate nominative go, anyway? And I thought gerund was one of those hamster-looking things in a plastic cage.
Diagramming was like physical exercise – the more you do it, the stronger the muscle gets, and the muscle being exercised in this case was the muscle of critical thinking. In diagramming sentences, the student has to break up the sentence, accurately categorize each part of the whole, place each part in its correct place, and be able to reassemble the parts into the whole with a newfound understanding of how the thing works. It takes discipline, analysis, patience, detachment and even the notion that a little sentence is in some way bigger than you are.
You are not the center of the universe. You can be bested by a participle.
This is what Henderson needs a bit more of. We are well-nigh desperate for folks who are able to take an issue, break it down into its parts, categorize the parts accurately and reassemble the parts into the original issue with a much better understanding of how the thing works. We could really use some people who could undertake that type of analysis with a sense of objectivity, with an eye toward the common good.
Take the summer discussions on garbage collection, for instance. A lot of money could be saved if some perks were trimmed back. The outcry from Henderson’s constituency was basically that trash would overflow the streets and the elderly would be denied service, neither of which would actually occur. The train of the debate did not progress on the rails of critical thinking and the common good; rather, it smashed into the obstacles of uncritical thinking and personal preference.
Regardless of your position on the issues, if you monitor the public dialogue, you will see that discussions about our water supply, Alive After Five, the Confederate flag, the use of lobbyists and even the persons who serve us in elected capacity often tend to be uncritical statements fueled by emotion and a lack of careful study and reflection. Such response makes productive dialogue difficult, and it only provides animus for more discontent.
Sure, the issues and obstacles facing our community are frustrating, but neither resignation nor cynicism will progress us very much, I fear. We need a new exercise (where is Ms. Saleeby, anyway?). Imagine scores of Hendersonians, paper and pencil in hand, blissfully sketching out the correct placement of the indefinite article. Or, hey, just imagine a leadership drawn from informed and careful citizenry, with that constituency holding the leadership accountable for decisions that benefit the entire community. Maybe with a little more sentence diagramming, nouns and verbs wouldn’t be the only things agreeing.
— Written by the Rev. Todd Hester