Monday, May 19, 2008

I've been on a book-buying binge lately (doing my best to buy only used books--small nod towards Living Green). Several wonderful books have turned up. But none has got me going as much as Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog.

Before you decide you don't want to hear one more word from me about DOGS (and who could blame you?), I hasten to give the subtitle: "The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences." Worse than dog-talk, I hear you moan. Well, to quote the lyrics of a steamy, under-appreciated Bernadette Peters song, "You'd Be Surprised."

(So far, I've just browsed Barking Dog , by Kitty Burns Florey, but already plucked a footnote that's worth the entire price of the book. Florey, writing about Marcel Proust's major work, Time Recaptured, tosses in this delicious tidbit: In a Monty Python skit titled "All-England Summarize Proust Competition," each contestant endeavored to present a brief summary of Proust's massive work, "once in a swimsuit and once in evening dress." )

Florey fills her small book with sentences by all sorts of famous writers, including the Python crazies, Woody Allen, Groucho Marx, Gertrude Stein, Faulkner, and most of all, with her own loving remembrances of the little nun who taught her to diagram them. The pure pleasure of the book reassures me once more of the wisdom of John Ciardi's assertion: "Anything significantly looked at is significant."

I have no memory of diagramming before college. We were probably exposed to it, just as (my former classmates swear) we were exposed to Walt Disney movies about menstruation. But I was so deeply into repression in my teen years it's a wonder I ever remembered the way to school day after day. In any case, my mentor into the sexy mysteries of diagramming was Mrs. Alsie Shulman at the University of Arizona.

When you first encountered Mrs. Shulman, she struck you as a strayed grandmother,out out of place on the palm-studded campus of the UA, then considered a playboy school, proud possessor of a polo team right up until last Tuesday. But if you misjudged Alsie Shulman, the joke was on you: before long, you were the one feeling weary and wobbly and perhaps in need of a walker.

Mrs. Shulman on first encounter seemed so ordinary as to be a caricature. Medium height, medium weight, formless dress, no-nonsense shoes, dark hair turning grey and pulled back in a severe bun. And always, always, winter or summer, a loose grey cardigan. It occurs to me now that perhaps, like so many Arizona faculty, she was an Eastern transplant come West for relief from asthma. The UA in the Fifties had a roster of brilliant professors who,in the normal course of things, would not have considered a position there for all the pipe tobacco in Dixie, but who had decided that breathing trumped prestige and the richer intellectual life of Ivy-dom.

Mrs. Shulman had one rather disconcerting physical trait. Her skin seemed about a size too large for her body. When she was considering your diagramming handiwork on the blackboard, she would grasp her jaws in a large, knobby hand, gather up many folds of flesh, and stare balefully. If it took her a while to figure out what on earth you had done to the sentence in question, she might place a palm on either side of her face and push all the loose skin up towards her dark, pessimistic eyes while she mulled. In those days, no one knew a Shar-Pei from a shampoo, or we might have delivered ourselves of a witless nickname.

The course she taught was as unadorned as her appearance. We diagrammed sentences. Period. No cartoons to aid our memories, no clever quips (I never saw the woman smile), no competing teams, no slides, even of the major types of sentences. As a matter of fact, no books of instruction or theory. We had three dittoed sheets listing the sentence options (Type I, Type II, etc.) And we had a small paperbound novel, The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James. Henry James! We began on page 1 and diagrammed every sentence in the book, as far as we, the class, could go in a semester, classes meeting three times a week.

We began drawing our diagrams on standard 8 1/2 x 11 plain typing paper. Soon we turned the paper sideways. Next we taped two sheets together. Finally four. (You do remember how long James' sentences are, yes?) One day, rummaging in my father's tool shed, I found discarded partial rolls of wallpaper, leftover from one of his rare fix-up projects. I was the envy of the diagramming class when I showed up on Monday with my homework stretching out comfortably on the back of a long scroll of Sears Flocked Floral Fantasy.

One of James' sentences, I recall, was 234 words long. (I counted, out of sheer disbelief.) And each word had to be corraled, branded (identified as to part of speech), herded into its appropriate stall on the right kind of line (right-angle, slanting, dotted, raised on a pedestal). Moreover, I had to be ready to explain clearly every move I'd made. If I could not, bam! "Fuzzy thinking, Miss Bell! Fuzzy thinking!" I hear her voice now, fifty years later. (This was before university legal counsel, rigid with anxiety about lawsuits, outlawed slander of students. Of course, coaches were always exempt from such rulings. I must ask Nancy why.)

On we went through the semester, green cowhands doggedly trying to lasso the great snorting, long-horned bulls of James' sentences. No matter how many we finally tied down, there were always more roaring through the chute. On the last day of class, with the final exam yet to come, the boy sitting behind me said, "I am praying for a D in this class." Greg was a PE major, minoring in English so that, in theory, he could teach high school seniors Beowulf in his spare moments away from the ball teams. All English majors and minors were required to take English grammar, which meant Mrs. Shulman's course. In the Fifties, professors gave D's and E's, believe it or not. But D was a passing grade.

Then Greg said, "Here's the kicker, though: even if I get a D, I know this is the best class I've ever taken in my life."

Me too.

Winston Churchill attributed his skill with the language to the fact that he had failed Latin and was required to take extra English courses instead. He had ended up, he claimed, with the English sentence in his blood and bones. Under Mrs. Shulman's skeptical brown eye, I had writhed and wrestled and winced, erased and reread, examined and explored the English sentence as written by one of the most exact if not the juiciest of American writers. I had learned that fuzzy thinking was a disgrace. I never attained the level of a Churchill, for sure. But I think that diagramming helped me read him with ease and pleasure. Here's what Florey says in her conclusion: "I think the important thing was not what we learned from diagramming in Sister Bernadette's class, but simply the fun we had doing it. Diagramming made language seem friendly, like a dog who doesn't bark, but, instead, trots over to greet you, wagging its tail." I'd go one step further: diagramming helped me put a leash on the dog and go exploring the world with it.