“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
– Will Durrant, historian
For better or worse, all of my high school English teachers were memorable. Each held a precise but non-overlapping image of the perfectly crafted essay; therefore, every September I found myself adopting a brand new writing style. A paper that would have garnered an “A” at the end of one school year routinely received a “C-minus” at the beginning of the next. For the next few months, I would master the new approach only to have it discarded and replaced again the following year. It was frustrating, but eventually, I discovered that my teachers were less cranky when I turned in work that was grammatically accurate, unambiguous, and tightly crafted. That seemed to please each one of them.
As I labored over my editing, I wondered if my teachers were just as intense and unforgiving in their private lives. Did they keep a red pencil handy whenever they read a newspaper or magazine? Did they feel the urge to pick up the telephone whenever a radio announcer split an infinitive or a news anchor ended a sentence with a preposition? I suspected that they were always on-duty even though I could not be certain.
One day in clinic, my question was answered. One of my patients shared a story about an elderly relative who happened to be a retired high school English teacher. The old man had been a stickler both in and out of the classroom, and his family had learned to treat the English language with respect whenever they were in in presence.
The teacher had lived a long and productive life. As his death drew near, he was admitted to a hospice unit, spending his final days in bed too weak, even, to turn side-to-side.
One of the nurses stopped by his room. “Mr. Cooper,” she said, “you look uncomfortable. Would you like to lay on your other side for a while?”
Mr. Cooper groaned. He opened an eye just wide enough to peer at her. “It’s ‘lie,'” he whispered. “You must say, ’Would you like to ‘lie’ on your other side?’” The effort he expended correcting this egregious grammatical blunder overwhelmed him, and he closed his eye again.
The teacher’s calling, apparently, never ends. The family swears that those were his very last words.
Bruce Campbell is an otolaryngologist who blogs at Reflections in a Head Mirror.
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