Great Moments in Teaching

  Jerome Shea       March 17, 2007      Weekend Wonk

The other day I was teaching my sophomore writing class the finer points of colon usage, so naturally I thought of Harold Welsh.

But before I get to that, I should add that my students—unless they are too polite—never seem to notice the similarity, indeed the identity, of the colon as a mark of punctuation and the colon that constitutes the home stretch of the digestive tract. (In fact, I just looked it up and they actually are of two different etymologies, the former from the Greek word for “limb,” the latter from the Greek word (same spelling, but with an accent change) for “large intestine.”) But the similarity screams out for a pun.

Which bring us back to Harold Welsh. Long, long ago, at a university far, far away, we were both lowly instructors and often could be found grading papers together in the evening in the large bullpen that we called an office. Since we each taught at least three sections of freshman composition, there was never a lack of papers to grade.

So there I was, slumped at my desk and wondering if this was my true calling or if I was a masochist, acting out. Harold was a couple of desks away, his back to me. I could hear his body language in the squeak of his chair, the scraping of his foot, the scratching of his head. And then he began to moan. Or whistle. Or hiss (mind you, this was over forty years ago, so the incidentals are fading). Fascinated, I cocked an ear. A few minutes later he was at my desk waving a “theme,” as we used to call them, in my face.

“Shea,” he said, “I have never seen anything as incomprehensible as this thing right here! It defies analysis! A chimpanzee could have done better!”

And he was right. Again, the memory is fading, but I do remember that you couldn’t tell where one thought (if it WAS a thought) ended or dribbled into another. Yet another clause seemed to swallow its own tail, serpent-fashion. The sentence actually seemed to writhe evilly on the page. Harold was clearly stricken, shaken. I had to help the man.

“Harold, spare yourself,” I said. “It’s not worth your sanity. Just write “AWK” (for awkward) in the margin and let the poor shlub work it out for himself.”

“No,” said Harold, and a strange light came into his eyes. Harold at that moment had donned the holy mantle of a Teacher. He would, at whatever cost, show this student (“Please don’t call him a shlub, Shea. He has a soul, even as you and I. There are those who love him.”) the error of his syntax, he would lead him from darkness, he would lift him up from ignorance. Harold Welsh was a man on a mission. Back to his desk he marched.

For fully twenty minutes I listened to Harold slave away at his desk. I heard him muttering to himself. I heard the scratching of his pen. I heard the crumpling up of trial explanations, the ricochet into the wastebasket. I heard prayers. I heard mewling laughter.

Then I heard a yelp of pure joy, and Harold was at my side.

“I did it, Shea! I figured the wretched thing out. And now I can show Billy Bismark [as we’ll call him] how to do it and he will be whole. This is why I became a teacher!”

He passed me the paper. In the margin beside the syntactic mess, Harold the ever helpful teacher had written, “BILLY, YOU CAN ELIMINATE ALLTHIS CRAP WITH A GOOD COLON.” He was positively beaming. And I feared for him.

“Harold,” I said gently, “Do you see what you have written?”

He stared, turned ashen, and said,

“Shea, what am I gonna do? I’ve got to get rid of this! We [we?] have to cover this up!” Xerox, of course, would have done the trick quickly and cleanly, but Xeroxing, at least for such as we, was a decade away.

Desperately, Harold grabbed a bottle of “white-out” on my desk. With trembling hand he began to lay on the gooey stuff. It was pointless, of course. Red ink will bleed through the thickest coating of white-out. Like an aggressive ghost it will keep coming back, passing through walls, as it were. But at least, as I recall, Harold did manage to make the statement not invisible but almost illegible. But now he had a patch in the margin of that paper that most resembled a frescoed ceiling. But it was the best he could do.

A couple of days later I asked him how things had worked out.

“Well,” he said, “When I handed back the papers, Billy’s only comment was ‘Mr. Welsh, why is my paper so heavy?’ I explained to him that we were having a gravity surge in Illinois that morning. And he bought it. I hope he doesn’t become a physics major.”

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