Sunday, December 21, 2014

Mrs O'Brien Would Be Spinning in Her Grave

Delores O'Brien was a stickler for the proper use of English and I thank her today for giving me that gift.  This image is photographed from the 1969 volume of "Aurora" the Rice Lake (Wisconsin) Senior High School's annual. That is Wilbur "Fig" Newton's left cheek overlooking Delores' right shoulder.

As the winds of time blow over our heads at the warp speed of the Starship Enterprise, it remains difficult to fathom that the world-wide Class of 1969 entered high school fifty years ago this coming August or September.  Fifty years ago in most cases we shyly and cautiously entered that next big stage of our lives.  We may have been real hot shots in the 8th grade, but now we were bottom feeders in an aquarium filled with sharks swimming much higher up in the water column.    

Looking back at my background, I can think of so many things that happened in those four years that shaped and continue to shape my life.  Many of us lost our virginity in high school (and those of us who didn’t certainly wished we had).  Many of us smoked our first cigarette in high school and some of us while sitting in his black 1965 Ford Mustang in the parking lot of the Catholic school smoked our first joint in high school.  We earned letters in various sports in high school, and excelled at debate or theater in high school, and most of us also learned how to better socialize in high school, while some of us may have accidently dunked David Hennekens' head in the toilet and kept flushing it over and over one day in high school.  Three of us even learned how to break into the Omaha Bar in the early hours of an April morning and steal a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon while we were in high school. Most importantly, however, we learned much about how to survive in high school. 

Despite our best efforts to the contrary, we all left high school with more knowledge than we ever thought possible to absorb. For the Valedictorians and the Salutatorians absorbing knowledge came easily.  However for others that absorption rate was akin to watching molasses flow in a January blizzard.  Much of our collective success in knowledge absorption can be traced back to a teacher or to teachers who remain memorable for many reasons and some of them still loom large in our thinking even today.

William Transburg was my 9th grade Biology teacher.  He and his wife (whose name I forget now) used to take me with them on winter and early spring weekend days and we would go seining for fish and other aquatic life in streams, and looking for birds in the forests of Barron County, Wisconsin.  Those experiences cemented my passion for being a biologist and because Transburg went to the University of Wisconsin – River Falls for his biology degree, I decided I would do the same.  And I did.

Arlen Mortensen was my 10th grade World History teacher.  Although it was difficult for anyone to admit they liked history, Arlen was so good at teaching it that a deep-seated interest in history was spawned that remains with me today.  I busted my ass in his class and thought I had earned an A each quarter.  Arlen’s grade book however showed instead that I earned four B+’s.  I often wonder if I could talk to him today and convince him to change those grades almost 50 years after the fact.

Orv Olson was my 11th grade Geometry teacher.  Try as he might Orv could not get the Pythagorean theorem or any other concept of math to sink into my thick skull.  I once took a 200 point tests of his and scored 4 points on it. I could not even guess the true-false questions correctly.  After that he warned me if I did not improve I would fail the semester.  I failed the semester.  Several years later after earning my Bachelor’s Degree I returned home to show my diploma to Orv.  When he asked what I majored in I told him Geology and Biology and added “with minors in physics and in math.”  It was true, I had a double minor in physics and in math and when Orv heard that I thought his head was going to spin around like the little girl’s did in the movie “The Exorcist.”


Orvin "Spot" Olson was my geometry teacher in high school.  Try as he might he could not get me to understand basic principles and theorums of mathematics.  Scoring 4 points on a 200 point test was one example of how hopeless it was to try teaching me geometry.  This image is photographed from the 1969 edition of "Aurora" the Rice Lake Senior High School annual.

Delores O’Brien was my 12th grade College Preparatory English teacher.  On the first day of her class Mrs. O’Brien said to me very snidely “What are you doing in a college prep class?” (She put special emphasis on the word “you”).  When I told her I was going to River Falls to be a biologist she said “Only if you pass my class.”  It was a veiled threat and warning all wrapped in one.  Once I picked up The Catcher in the Rye from the back of her room and told her I wanted to read it because “this must be a baseball book.”  She shook her head and said, “You big dummy. That book has NOTHING to do with baseball.”  The only thing I liked about Mrs. O’Brien was her daughter Maureen after whom I lusted many many times while walking behind her down a school hallway between classes.


With considerable resignation in her voice, Mrs. O'Brien was the one who informed me that The Catcher in the Rye was not, in fact, a book about baseball

Despite the hate-hate relationship that Mrs. O’Brien and I developed and nurtured from the first day of class until the end of the school year, she taught me to have a deep and abiding respect for the English language, and the proper use of its many words and phrases.  And that brings us to the point of this article.

It was because of Mrs. O’Brien and her dogged pursuit of perfection in English that when it came time seven years later to write the thesis for my Master’s degree, it went through only one re-write before my graduate committee approved my work.  My major professor was so impressed that he asked me where I learned how to use English so well.  I told him about a crabby English teacher in high school whose daughter I still enjoyed occasional fantasies. When I started writing papers for publication in scientific journals I used the techniques of proper word usage and conjugation taught to me by Mrs. O’Brien and rarely if ever did a journal editor return a manuscript with anything other than superficial changes to meet his or her writing style.

In 1969 the preposition “like” was not used as filler nearly as often as it is today.  Now, however, it is used so often that it has become nearly an everyday form of speaking. An online dictionary defines “like” as a preposition having the same characteristics or qualities as "there were other suits like mine in the shop.

Like can also be used as an informal conjunction in the same way as. “people change countries like they change clothes"

The dictionary also recognizes that “like” can be used as an informal adverb used in speech as a meaningless filler or used to convey a person's reported attitude or feelings "so she comes into the room and she's like “Where is everybody?”

It was the use of “like” as meaningless filler that drove Mrs. O’Brien crazy even before its overuse in contemporary speech.  More than once Mrs. O’Brien would call me out in front of the class and even occasionally slap my fingers with the narrow edge of a ruler when I made the mistake of improperly using “like.”  Of course today she and the school district would be sued for uncountable sums of money if she smacked my hand for any reason.  However it was a lesson well learned and an excellent technique.  Today when I’m surrounded by people saying “like” as meaningless filler I begin mocking them repeating “like” each time they say it incorrectly.  As I do I try to imagine Mrs. O’Brien standing over them smacking their fingers with that same god damned ruler with which she would regularly whack my fingers.

If you were an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls in the late 1960s and early 1970s and you wanted to eventually graduate and receive a diploma, one of the courses you were required to take was Fundamentals of Speech 130.  At the time it was viewed with scorn but as life has taught me, Speech 130 was one of the most often used classes throughout my career.  My class was taught on the second floor of rickety old South Hall and my professor (whose name I have forgotten) was a stickler for the proper use of English in our speeches.  She had us present speeches extemporaneously from subjects she gave us at random while we stood behind her lectern.  We gave persuasive speeches and debate speeches and argumentative speeches (I always received an A on those three) and informative speeches.  Before each speech we were warned that if we used the word “like” as a filler 1 point would be deducted from our total grade for each misuse.  Thus it was theoretically possible to receive a negative number for a grade on a speech if you went wild with the word “like” and filled your speech with it.

The other misused word that drove Mrs. O’Brien bonkers in high school was “got” and especially when it was used with the contraction I’ve as in “I’ve got milk.”  “I’ve” is a contraction of the words “I have” so to say “I’ve got…..” is actually saying “I have got…”  Cows produce milk and when holding a glass of it you ‘have” milk so get over this “got milk” nonsense!


No I do not!  Female bovines produce milk and I may occasionally "have" a glass of it in my hand.   

Got is the past tense of the word “get” which means obtaining or possessing something.  “Have” is a verb that means to possess something.  Thus “I have got” is the same thing as saying “I have”….so why add the second sense of possession?  Just say “I have” and be over with it.

Long ago in high school Mrs. O’Brien used to hound me when I improperly used “got” in a sentence and I still am aware of it and frustrated by its improper use today.  Much of the angst being directed at immigrants to the United States by a certain largely uneducated group of tea drinkers is that immigrants allegedly are unable to correctly speak and use English in conversations.  I often wonder how many of those tea drinkers frequently and incorrectly use words such as “like” and “got” in sentences and especially when they are discussing immigrants whom they claim don’t know English!

Comedian George Carlin was relentless in pointing out how people misue words in every day speech. His last book "Final Words" was published shortly after his unfortunate and untimely death

Comedian and language satirist George Carlin made millions of dollars from skits and routines about the use (proper or otherwise) of words in every day conversation.  Who among us of my age group will ever forget Carlin’s famous “Seven Dirty Words” routine that ultimately was the subject of a court case heard before the United States Supreme Court.  These were seven words that the Supremes deemed to be indecent and could not be used on public airwaves although today two of them (piss, tits) are used regularly on television and radio.  Carlin went to great lengths to lampoon people who improperly and incorrectly used words in every day speech. 

George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" remains a classic

The only person I have ever known who was even more dogged in their lampooning, at least when it came to me, was Delores O’Brien.  If only she could be aware how frequently “like” and “got” are misused in every day speech, I have a hunch Mrs. O’Brien would be spinning in her grave at the speed of a Cuisinart.

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