Most students are in the classroom by now, but some are still struggling with their lockers. I walk out to the hallway and notice Nikki at Monica’s locker. Several other students are still fumbling with textbooks and supplies.
“You are late,” I say to the hallway in general, whereupon Nikki moves away, protesting, “It’s not my fault; Ms. Lunden let us out late.”
I have no way of knowing whether Mitzi did or didn’t let them out late, but I note that Alanna Perkins seems to have made it from the same math class on time, so I say, “In that case, you really don’t have time to socialize at Monica’s locker, so get a move on.”
“I wasn’t at her locker,” Nikki protests, starting to open her own locker.
“Mm-hmm,” I tell her. “All evidence to the contrary.”
Monica giggles and shuts her locker with a bang. “I really do love the way you talk, Ms. Taylor,” she says as she sashays past me into the classroom. I leave Nikki behind, trying to figure out why she rankles me in a way that Monica does not.
Once inside the room, I stride to the front and announce that we are going to begin our grammar studies today. A general groan emanates from the pool of students sitting in my room, which I ignore except to say blandly, “You haven’t lived until you have conjugated a verb and inserted it grandly into your prose.”
“Huh?” Darin says from his seat near the front.
I smile at him and then the room in general. “Language is the essence of human communication,” I tell them. “Don’t you want to be the most effective at it that you can be?” Amused, I watch the vehement ‘no!’ that begins to form on most of their lips. I smile again, and say, “I really do doubt that,” and begin my lesson.
On the board, I write the word VERBS. “What do we know about verbs?” I ask the class in general.
“Oh, I know, I know!” Nikki says from the doorway, her arms full of books.
“Take your seat, Nikki,” I say, without looking at her. “You may participate when you are at your desk with your textbook open to the proper page.”
“What page is that?” she asks, apparently not understanding that she is unwelcome to comment until she has complied with my request. I do my best to ignore her, but Tony derails me by saying, “It’s on the board, stupid.”
“Are you going to let him talk to me like that, Ms. Taylor?” Nikki complains. “That’s just insulting.”
Nick speaks up from the back, “It might be if it weren’t so true.” I give the briefest of smiles and turn my back to the classroom to write again on the whiteboard. I add the words FORMS and TENSES below VERBS.
When I turn back around, Monica has her hand in the air. “Yes?” I ask her.
“Verbs are the action words in a sentence,” she says with an air of knowledge.
“Yes,” I tell her, “generally, they are. So let’s concentrate on that idea.” I again look at my students. “With Monica’s thought in mind, what is the difference between these two words?” I use my laser pointer to indicate FORMS and TENSES.
“That’s cool,” Darin says, looking at the laser pointer. “Can we use it?”
“Hey!” Tony says. “You can’t have that in school.” He smirks backward toward Nick and repeats his statement, adding, “It’s against the code of conduct thingy you talked about.”
“Yeah,” Nikki echoes. “We even highlighted it in our planners.”
“And if I were a sixth-grader,” I say, “having this laser pointer would be breaking the rules.” I narrow my eyes at Nikki and then Tony. “But I’m not a sixth grader, am I?” I stare at them both, daring them to say more, but to my relief, neither does, preferring instead to look down at their textbooks. Ah ha! I think. Score one for Teacher, zero for Student Delinquents. It is a good moment.
Not so fast. Ken, feeling much more secure in his role of sixth grader at Bennie J. Goodman, says, “I heard in the news that a teacher got fired for pointing a laser at a student’s face.”
I smile at Ken, a smile that does not reach my eyes. “Then I’ll have to make doubly sure that doesn’t happen here.” He appears to blanch beneath my look.
“So,” I say, changing the subject back to verbs. “What is the difference between a verb’s tense and its form?”
After I have spent a half hour showing students the different forms of verbs and helping them to understand how verb forms are used to create each tense we use in our language communication, Monica raises her hand.
“Yes?” I say to her, wondering just how off-task her question or comment will be.
“Ms. Taylor,” she begins, “is there any reason you would use a verb form without making a tense out of it?”
I stare at her in tingly wonder, feeling as if I have just been inducted into grammar heaven. No one has asked me a question like that in years, not even Alison or Amy. And where did it come from? What is actually going on in Monica’s head, behind the silliness and the giggles and the need for attention?
“Ms. Taylor?” she says again, and I am jolted from my reverie.
“She doesn’t know,” Nikki blurts out, giggling and looking at Tony for approval. He starts to give a little laugh, but I interrupt him.
“I do know,” I say, “and I’m pleased that Monica has asked.” I give her a smile and then turn toward my whiteboard, erasing what I had written on it before. In its place, I write the word VERBAL and tell the class, “A verb form that is not being used as a verb is called a verbal.” There is a smattering of snickers and even Aaron glances up from his tablet and smiles.
“I know it sounds like a funny word, but to me, that’s part of what makes communication so special: there are aspects to it that just make you laugh.”
“It doesn’t make me laugh,” says Nikki, belying that as she giggles at Tony, trying to get his attention. I make a mental note to move her further back in the room so she can’t turn around and make eye contact with potential partners in crime.
Monica is staring at me in rapt attention and I realize she really does want to know.
On the board, I write the following phrases:
“What words do you see that look like they might be verbals?” I ask Monica.
She stares at them, then at me. “It must be frightened, lingering, and finishing,” she says.
I nod. “Yes.” And to the class at large, I continue, “What makes those three words ‘verbals’ insteads of verbs?”
From his seat at the side of the room, Kiernan mutters, “Who cares?” which I ignore. I am hopeful that others will, too. It helps that Nikki is now doodling with Monica’s gel pens on her spiral. Path of least resistance, I think, shaking my head.
Monica is studying the phrases. “They need helping verbs in order to be actual verbs,” she says speculatively. I nod.
“Can you see how you might use these phrases in a sentence without adding a helping verb?” I ask her, and I realize I have made too great a leap, because she is quickly shaking her head.
“Okay,” I say. “So let’s just look at the phrase. What part of speech is child?”
“Usually a noun,” she says, and I smile.
“Oh, my God!” groans Tony. “This is so boring!”
“If you’d rather spend this time next door in Mr. Harper’s room,” I smile at him, referring to John, “be my guest.” He shakes his head quickly, and then bangs it on the book on his desk. I smile again, noticing that Nick is also smiling from his desk at the back of the room.
Returning my focus to Monica, I ask her, “If child is a noun, then what part of speech is frightened?
Candice is eagerly raising her hand, so I ask her to help out. “Yes, Candice?” I say.
“Well, it must be an adjective,” she beams at me. “Just like lingering and finishing. These are all adjective-noun phrases.”
“Yes!” I tell her. “These verbals are adjectives. Just like any other adjectives you know: good, bad, ugly, silly, crazy, dumb.” I add the last one for Tony’s benefit, grinning at him as I say it.
“Wait,” says Monica. “How is ‘finishing’ an adjective?” Some of my other students are nodding and echoing her doubts. I smile at her.
“Well,” I say, “in bygone years, polite young ladies attended something called a ‘finishing school’.” I grin more broadly, trying to imagine any of my young female charges attending one and cannot. Well, maybe Candice and Analisa.
“Why did they do that?” Ken wants to know.
I turn toward him. “They learned manners and the fine art of conducting polite conversation, for one thing.”
“Well, that lets us out,” Monica says, and I hide my smile.
“They also received a classical education,” I continue, unable to resist adding more fuel to their collective fire.
“Ooooh!” Nikki says, pulling her attention from the rainbow she has doodled in her spiral. “That sounds stupid.”
I ask her, “Do you even know what a classical education is?” and she shakes her head, indicating with her shrugged shoulders that it can’t possibly matter, anyway.
I can’t help agreeing—it probably doesn’t.