RULES AND REASON

Daniel Menaker

 

The wonderful and historically unique town of Nyack, on the west side of the Hudson River, was, in the 1950s, a conglomeration of exurbanites from New York City, commuters to the city, quasi-indigenous white gentry (in Upper Nyack, of course), a substantial black population, a substantial number of working-class Italian families, some remnants of old Dutch Hudson River clans, and a small, peculiar cadre of street-life uniques (Crazy John, Gop-Gop, Bruno, Shell Shock Shelly). The social and commercial establishments ran the gamut from the Upper Nyack Field Club to the VFW lodge to Charlie’s, a rowdy bar on lower Main Street. Upon the eponymous Charlie’s retirement, the bar was renamed O’Donohue’s, after Charlie’s bartender, Paul O’D, who had bought him out. It was the best bar in the history of the world.

The only gamuts run by the all-white faculty at Nyack High were age and quality. There was the ancient and almost inaudible algebra teacher, Miss Conrad, who expired in the middle of the year and was replaced by a series of stand-ins who for the most part didn’t know an x from a y. There was the equally ancient Miss Nutt, an excellent geometry teacher, whose elementary and inarguable subject must have become, by the time of her retirement, part of her DNA. There was Mr. Beninati: mean, but a great intermediate algebra teacher, whose classroom was utterly quiet except when he was talking or when a student was called on to ask—or, terrified, to answer—a question.

There was Mrs. Giles, a good freshman English teacher whose only fault was giving me a completely unfair C for my examples of simple, compound, complex, interrogative, and imperative sentences:

The dog chased the cat.
The dog chased the cat, and the cat chased the dog.
After the dog chased the cat, the cat chased the dog.
Did the dog chase the cat?
Dog, chase the cat!

Dr. Sarah Roody was the best teacher I had at Nyack High. She insisted on being addressed as Doctor Roody. I believe that her doctorate was in education, but no PhD could possibly be more formidable or know his or her subject more thoroughly than she did. She was physically unimposing: an ordinary, somewhat rectangular, pale face; close-cropped hair; an almost fixed smile—camouflage for her stern demeanor.

I knew and still know nothing about her background or family. All I knew was that she was formidable, and held a class of motley, usually obstreperous students in close-to-military order. She was a grammar-and-usage expert to match my mother, a copy editor at Time Inc. who threatened to disown me if I ever again said “Tiffany’s” instead of “Tiffany” and who also, to my shock, once said to me, “On Main Street a few minutes ago, I heard one boy say to another, ‘Get the fuck up on the bike, if you want a ride.’ I wonder what part of speech ‘the fuck’ is in that sentence.”

As I recall, Dr. Roody ran her classes in a modular way. Twenty minutes on matters of grammar, complete with diagramming (a lost art now, I believe—a huge shame) and faulty sentences to be corrected by those brave souls who raised their hands and sometimes by those cowardly souls who didn’t. Fifteen minutes of discussion about a reading assignment—a poem, maybe, or a short story, or part of a novel we were reading as a class (The Old Man and the Sea, maybe, or Of Mice and Men). Fifteen minutes of in-class exercises. Homework consisted of similar assignments, especially sentence correction, word choices, and composition.

When a kid got something wrong in class, Dr. Roody would just say “No” and call on someone else or pick a raised hand. The temperature would go down a few degrees after that “No.” And even prize students—like, well, er, um, me—were given scant praise for getting things right, though it is true that Dr. Roody seemed—however minimally—pleased by those of us who could reliably differentiate between a gerund and a present participle. (“Writing is frustrating.”) And she emanated a silent satisfaction when a class was going generally well—a sense that the whole world was making sense just then, and that we were all helping. So her class often became an oasis of rules and reason with respect to language and, by extension, the human condition.

It was clear even then that Dr. Roody took her work more seriously and professionally than many high school teachers did. But until I sat down to write this tribute, I didn’t quite realize how seriously and professionally she and others like her—and, surely, you who are reading this—have taken their/your work. Hunting for Dr. Roody online miraculously turned up some JSTOR documents that helped me understand the dedication and scholarship that she brought into fourth period at Nyack High every day during my senior year. For example:

I gave the class a few sentences in which the main thought was buried in a participle and asked the pupils to place the emphasis where it should be by expressing the main point in the predicate verb and the minor idea in the participle. Here is one of the faulty sentences: “Minisi caught the ball and ran over the goal line, winning the game.”

To stress still further the fact that a participle cannot take the place of a predicate verb, I gave the class some fragments of sentences with predicates omitted and with participles where the verbs ought to be. I asked: ”Why are these groups of words not sentences?”

(Were you as puzzled by the unusualness of the name “Minisi” as I was? I searched for it online and found this from a University of Pennsylvania website: “Skip Minisi was an All-American halfback with Pennsylvania’s undefeated football team of 1947, won varsity letters as a freshman, junior and senior, and played against his alma mater as a sophomore in 1945.” Which leads me to believe that Dr. Roody’s example sentence was a real sentence from a real student’s real composition. Which in turn leads me to believe that Dr. Roody must have kept notes about errors she ran across while reading students’ compositions, for possible later example use. Which, coming around these parentheses’ last turn, redoubles my admiration for her dedication and discipline.)

Dr. Roody’s commitment to order and rules gave us—or me, at any rate—a rock-solid basis for improvising in my writing, as time went by. Just as artists often use verisimilitude as a basis for original invention and jazz musicians use melodies almost as toys to be played with and put to new and surprising and original musical uses, the rules of grammar, usage, and structure, once mastered, provided the basis for novel usages, surprising turns of phrase, invention.

Dr. Roody’s commitment to strict classroom governance also extended to chewing gum. Absolutely no chewing gum. So no one hazarded gum in her class. Except me. Tucked up inside my cheek. Got away with it. Until April of 1959. (Oh my God—sixty years ago.) Somehow, she caught me. “Danny, you have chewing gum in your mouth,” she said.

“No, I don’t,” I said.

“Yes, you do,” she said.

“Take it out.”

I took it out.

“Put it on your nose,” she said.

“Leave it there for the rest of the period.”

“What?”

“I said put it on your nose and leave it there for the rest of the period. Or you can go to Mr. Rittershausen’s office and have a period of detention after school. You may choose.”

I put the gum on my nose, everyone laughed, and I sat there, humiliated, for the next half hour.

Perfectly fair, of course, if mortifying.

My admiration for and gratitude to Dr. Roody continued after graduation, through college, and beyond. To this day (obviously). I felt I owed her a great deal, as I wielded my semicolons correctly in college, deployed gerunds and present participles accurately in graduate school, and, later, began writing for publication.

Near the end of her life, as it happened—and before I started publishing—she turned the admiration tables on me in a both sad and gratifying way. Somehow, my parents, still living in Nyack, got word that Dr. Roody had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and was being taken care of in Nyack Hospital, and they told me about it.

I decided to go and see her and thank her for her excellent, rigorous instruction. She looked much the same, lying in that hospital bed, wearing the same kind-of-fixed smile.

“I came to thank you for your wonderful teaching my senior year,” I said. We talked for a while—I believe the conversation centered on what literature I had studied after high school. Then she quite suddenly told me she was having serious pain. I went to get a nurse, and she put what I assumed was more morphine into the IV set up behind the bed. Dr. Roody relaxed, and her smile became warm.

A tribute like this should not end self-referentially, but in this case, there’s really no help for it, because what Dr. Roody said next was so unexpected and climactic—with regard to both of us—that there’s no other way. She took my hand—she took my hand!—and said, “You were the best student I ever had.” I don’t think in my life there will ever be a compliment or any praise that means more. There certainly hasn’t been so far, and I am getting on.

Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Menaker
Cover art copyright © 2019 by Katya Arnold

DANIEL MENAKER was an editor at The New Yorker and editor-in-chief of Random House. He has written humor, essays, fiction, and journalism for The New Yorker, the New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and many other publications. He has twice won the O. Henry Award for short stories. He is also the author of seven books, two of which have been chosen for the Times’ 100 Best Books of the Year, one an Editor’s Choice.