When I was in seventh grade, waaay back in the early ’90s, I had an English teacher who is almost single-handedly responsible for everything I know about commas.
Now, I can’t say I hadn’t noticed the rules of proper comma usage before. I read, and I read a lot. But some of the niceties had undoubtedly been escaping me.
I will never forget that class, because it was the first and only time my tests have been blank sheets of paper.
The teacher was already elderly, nearing retirement, when I had him twenty-odd years ago, so his teaching methods seem antiquated now–even by the time I reached my senior year of high school, teachers were moving away from strict memorization to applied learning.
For the most part, I think that’s great. But I am forever thankful I learned punctuation “the hard way.”
We had spent the week going over the rules for commas in our grammar books. (I’ve tried and tried to remember what textbook it was, and I thought it might be The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation–the teacher called them “your blue books,” and I remember the awful baby-blue cover with ’70s-esque font in darker blue. But quick research turned up that TBBoGaP isn’t old enough to have been my textbook. I’ll probably never know what it truly was.)
On Friday, we sat at our desks, bare except for a single pencil, and waited for the blank sheets of paper to be passed out.
Then we wrote down every rule we’d learned for comma usage, word for word.
I don’t remember exactly how many there were–my mind jumps to 29, but that could be because I’ve been telling this story to my friends over the years, and hyperbole has crept in. It was probably closer to 20 than 30.
Any student who didn’t get them perfect had to take the test again the following Monday, while the rest of the class read the next short story we’d been assigned in our other textbook.
Most of the year went like that–a week of intense focus on a single grammatical concept or the rules of a particular type of punctuation, then a week of reading. (Oh, and we had to do a 500-word “persuasive” essay every week. I laugh to think how hard 500 words was, back then. I’m pretty sure one of mine was “People Should Grow Roses.”)
Fast forward to now. Could I write out all 29 (or however many) rules again, word for word, like I did in seventh grade? I’m sure I couldn’t.
But every time I read a book that never sets off forms of direct address in dialogue with commas (“What are you doing Ted?”) I cringe, and remember how I know doing needs a comma after it, and think of those blank sheets of paper.