Comma, Comma, Comma, Chameleon
I hate commas. I don’t mean hate like, “I hate blue M&Ms.” I mean hate as in, “I hate choking to death on a brussel sprout.” English teacher and writer that I am, I shouldn’t expend such emotion on a mere punctuation mark. It’s too little of an item to stress about in life. But I don’t care. I hate the little buggers, and I greatly admire the Romans. They managed to write for a thousand years without any punctuation at all. Made teaching a whole easier, I’d venture to say. Part of my frustration with commas is how hard it is to teach all of the rules concerning their proper usage. But my visceral feelings about commas came earlier in my life. Growing up, I learned to type on a 1940s portable typewriter. I also had to type all of my high school papers on that blue/ gray piece of garbage.
Manual typewriters need regular maintenance, which my father was too cheap to provide and I was too ignorant to demand. As a consequence, the comma key stuck every time I used it. This would result in the next key (or three if I was really in a groove) jamming and double striking the paper. My father was also too cheap to buy good paper. All I ever got was the see-through onion skin paper. There was no such thing as Wite-Out or any other easy-to-use mistake forgiving technology. They hadn’t been invented yet (oh, the missed opportunity). So I had to erase the double strikes using what was essentially sand embedded in rubber. Which often tore the paper rendering it unusable. Many is the night that I was up at two a.m. retyping a page that a sandpaper eraser had mutilated worse than a pit-bull with a golf glove.
What all of my late night frustration led to was me learning how to write without commas. I got real good at it. I memorized all of the comma rules. All 47,000 of them. I won every argument with my teachers on comma usage. In four years of high school, I never once committed the sin of a comma splice. That fact should have given me an extra 50 points on my SATs. But I digress. What I really want to write about is Jessica.
I first met Jessica when she was a precocious five-year-old and her brother Tim was in my sixth grade class. She was adamant about being Jessica, not Jessie or some other diminutive. Their father taught high school English in my district, and he invited me once a year to present some of my work to his creative writing class. I was his “writer-in-residence.” We also worked on committees together. When Jessica reached sixth grade, I was pleased to see her name on my roster since we had also become neighbors. Unfortunately, sixth grade became something of a nightmare for Jessica. Her parents split up in what became a very nasty divorce in which everyone except Jessica took sides. I spent a lot of time journaling with and talking to Jessica about her issues with her parents and siblings. A year later, mom packed the kids up and moved to Massachusetts where she was from and still had extended family. I didn’t hear from Jessica for a while.
Her dad called me, though, a few years later when things had settled down a little between he and his ex. Jessica was fifteen and spending the summer with him and his new wife. He knew I had two young children and wondered if Jessica could babysit them once in a while. My wife and I were thrilled. Jessica was a great babysitter, and all summer we had a once a week worry-free night out. Since my wife is an Olympic worrier, Jessica’s availability made for a much more restful summer. One night, as I was taking her home, she suddenly spoke up.
“Mr. Parent,” she said.
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to thank you for.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Remember when my parents split up?”
“Yes,” I said.
I could feel my chest starting to puff up. What words of wisdom and comfort had I given this poor child that got her through the darkest time of her life? Tell me so I can use it with other children in your predicament. Maybe I’ll write a book on the subject.
“It’s going to sound really stupid and like a small thing,” she said, picking her words carefully.
“If it helped you, then it was important.”
“Remember how you taught me in sixth grade that you don’t need a second comma in a list of three things.”
I remembered the lesson. You can write: “eggs, milk, and butter” or “eggs, milk and butter.” My preference should be obvious. But how could such a trivial thing be important? How could that help a young woman caught in an acrimonious divorce?
“My mom and grandma put me in an all girls’ school in Boston.”
“I didn’t know that,” I said, still wondering where this was going.
“Most of the girls were rich and kind of snotty. They all thought I was just a dumb hick from Colorado.”
“It’s hard being the new kid in class,” I said.
“One day,” she continued, “the teacher put a sentence on the board for the class to correct. It had a list of three items. The teacher said it needed a second comma and I told her it didn’t.”
“It turned into a big argument and I told her that my teacher Mr. Parent is a writer, and he knew what he was talking about.”
“I still don’t see how that helped you.”
“The teacher went home that night and looked it up. She came back to class the next day, apologized, and told everyone I was right about not needing the second comma. All of the girls treated me better after that. So thank you.”
She looked at me quizzically.
“You’re welcome. Glad I was able to help,” I said.
My ego was terribly bruised. It wasn’t any deep insight that I provided her in her hour of need. Just some stupid comma rule. Even worse, if the fancy shmancy Bostonian teacher hadn’t stepped up and been willing to validate Jessica, the other students would have kept on snubbing her. I was just a bit player in the whole drama. I said good night as I dropped her off. Summer was almost over and I didn’t see her much after that night. The next summer, she had a driver’s license and got a regular job, which left little time for child care.
I thought a lot about what she said for a long time after picking my ego up off of the ground. The experience was both humbling and enlightening at the same time. I have noticed that those two things often go hand in hand. Probably by cosmic design. A trivial bit of information traveled from my dilapidated typewriter to an exclusive girls’ school in Boston and made a young woman’s life a little easier. I am in the helping profession. I derive a certain sense of worth from my ability to assist other people in their struggles in life. That ego drive can make me forget what a wise woman once said: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” Sometimes, the small things are enough. Exhibit A is Jessica.