Monday, November 4, 2013

Ode to Mrs. Bowen

by Gil Lackey '84

I was afeared of her ages before she had me raking leaves on the hill to work off her demerits. The legend of June Bowen, militaristic 7th grade English teacher, had preceded her.

But the truth behind Mrs. Bowen turned out to be more complex than the folklore. She was tough and fair and intimidating and hilarious. With her infamous in-class grammar contests, she fostered competition and a demand for perfection. I vividly recall diagramming sentences in my restless sleep (hopefully not while in her class).

Because of Mrs. Bowen, I can’t help but cringe when I hear the split infinitive at the beginning of each Star Trek episode, “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” That is just poor grammar up with which I will not put!

But Mrs. Bowen didn’t just cultivate lifelong grammarians. She mass-produced proper grammarians. Yes, Mrs. Bowen’s discipline ushered me to demerit hall on many a Saturday. There, I learned a myriad of didactic vocabulary words but mostly just raked a boatload of leaves.

Many years later, I broke free from the bondage of school, teachers, parents, bosses, or any authority whatsoever. Yes, I purchased my own house.

As I strolled to the mailbox on that first autonomous day, my next-door neighbor introduced herself. “Welcome to the neighborhood. I’m June.”

Holy moly, it was Mrs. Bowen! If I yawned without covering my mouth or left my shirttail hanging out, would I once again be relegated to raking leaves on Saturday? I felt that familiar shiver of afearedness!

On the contrary, Mrs. Bowen (no way I was calling her “June”) turned out to be a dear friend and extraordinary neighbor. She probably hadn’t changed much since I was in 7th grade, but 20 years had changed my perception of her. She was brilliant and witty and sarcastic and wonderful.

She called on me for small favors every once in a while, so I wasn’t surprised when I saw her name on the caller ID that day. I agreed to come over to help her with a diagram. Only after I got off the phone did the terror hit me. A diagram? Are you kidding me? This lady wrote the book on diagramming sentences. That’s not an idiomatic expression - I mean she literally wrote grammar books. I hadn’t had fitful dreams about diagramming in 20 years, so how in the world could I not look the fool? This time, she really, really afeared me!

I searched in vain for my old “Rulebook” to jar my grammatical memory before fretfully knocking on her door. As I crept into her living room, I saw ceiling fan parts strewn about the floor. Next to the clutter, you may have guessed, were the ceiling fan instructions in the form of a diagram.

I have never been so relieved and overjoyed to put together a ceiling fan in all my life. I filled her in on the diagram miscommunication, and we both belly-laughed until tears ran down our faces.

These days, I envision Mrs. Bowen, red pen in hand, sending even the finest souls to rake leaves on an even bigger hill in Heaven. I also fancy thinking she would be pleased with the way she influenced my life. Although I graduated Mrs. Bowen’s course with flying mediocrity, I think I have applied more of what I learned in that class than any other.

I married another hopeless grammarian and enjoy a career as an outdoor writer and editor. I have my own red pen, although it’s in the form of a computer editing tool. I daily use a superfluity of didactic vocabulary words. And there are plenty of leaves to rake in the outdoors. But I must confess, she still afears me a little.