O MISS MULLIGAN! I still see you clearly although I haven't laid eyes on you for 54 years. Every day, as I sit with my pad of paper and my fine-point felt pen poised to drop onto it at the first hint of an approaching idea, you are at my shoulder, peering down into the murky prose that often floods the page. Your punitive hand is raised to strike, your red, stippled nose (illness? heredity? drink?) turns purple with fury as you spot my errors. I hear your voice in my mind's ear, reiterating the grammatical rule: "If the compound subject consists of singular substantives connected by or, nor, either . . . or, neither . . . nor, the verb should be in the singular."
As I write, I feel the knuckles of my memory crack under the strike of your ruler. I misapply a modifier, mistake the identity of a part of speech, misuse was in a condition with a singular subject, and thwack, your ruler deadens the fingers of my right hand. I cringe, I shake, I stoically restrain my tears. Then, mercifully, you pass down the aisle, bending your attention and your ruler to the next grammatical miscreant, and I can relax in my seat and celebrate my temporary freedom from your terrible syntactical rectitude.
Miss Mulligan was my teacher for almost everything in the sixth grade at Public School 9 in New York City. She taught me Palmer Method penmanship (which made no impression whatever upon my ultimate illegible handwriting), civics (an awesomely dull subject centering on the history of New York State), spelling, history, and reading. But more than all of these, in effect, she taught me English grammar, fervently, strenuously, and corporeally.
In those years, like many other frightened and over- ambitious grade-schoolers, I was in the grip of a stammer which convinced me that every road in life, except perhaps linotype operator or lighthouse keeper, was closed to me. Most linotype operators in those years were deaf and I believed that few social demands were ever made upon lighthouse keepers. But Miss Mulligan, in her angry tutorial sessions, somehow bred in me the desire to be a writer, another profession, I thought, in which speech would never be required.
Since then, I have wondered what it was about those painful grammatical periods that suggested a literary career. I have decided that she persuaded me of the tortuous nature of the craft, and of the blessed sense of freedom from pain when one "got it right." However it came about, in Miss Mulligan's sixth-grade class I began to think that it was worth anything to achieve, by whatever means, the lightning force and beauty of the written word.
Toward the end of the year Miss Mulligan required that we write our first composition showing how well we had learned the rules in the long winter of grammar. The subject was uninspired but sturdy: What You Wish to Be. It was May, and our knuckles were by now callused against Miss Mulligan's chastisement. Or perhaps it was that the rudiments of English grammar had finally made an impression on our shallow little minds and we were making fewer mistakes.
I decided to write about my wish to be a writer. I thought I should compose a paper so decorated, so full of rhetorical flourish, so elegantly worded and arranged that even the redoubtable Miss Mulligan would recognize in my masterpiece that I was more than suited to my chosen profession.
For some reason, Miss Mulligan took longer than usual to return our papers. Even at this distance I can remember how I agonized during that interval (I recall it every time I wait out the time between the writing of a book and the appearance of reviews), how I fantasized about what she would say. She would return my composition, her purplish face aglow with admiration. She would murmur words of astonishment at this evidence of precocious talent. She would forever after treat me with the kind of reverence the young Mozart must have elicited from his teachers.
The day came. Without a word to anyone, Miss Mulligan returned the compositions. I was shocked, but I reasoned: She will take me aside afterwards. Without looking at it I stuffed my paper into my bookbag and waited outside the classroom door long after everyone had left. Miss Mulligan never came out. I started home, reluctantly. It was not until I reached Amsterdam Avenue, my corner, that I was able to summon up the courage to look at my composition. There, in Miss Mulligan's careful script, was her "mark." As usual it was divided into two parts: Grammar: A; Content: D Terrible!!
In one stroke, Miss Mulligan had taught me all I needed to know to become a writer: grammar and simplicity. For half a century I have been grateful to her caustic judgment and her instructive ruler. I had to wait until college for another instructive teacher. She was an eminent philologist, Chaucerian, linguist, medievalist, and the first woman to be granted a full professorship at New York University. Margaret Schlauch gave me (and a thousand others, I am certain) a rare respect for powerful and accurate language. Her field was Old and Medieval Literature, in every Indo-European language in which such writing appeared. We stumbled after her while she read aloud Norse and Icelandic edda and saga, Old French lais of Marie de France, the Niebelungenlied in Middle High German, the tales of the Tuatha de Danann in Gaelic, as well as the somewhat more accessible Piers Plowman, the Pearl poet, Cynewulf, and Caedmon.
Whatever the language, and no matter how lacking in intrinsic interest the subject, Professor Schlauch made us see, and hear, the unique value of every word, its etymology, its evolved shape and meaning, its relation to cognates in other contemporary tongues. She made us understand that all literature begins, in St. John's words, with the word; it is concern for, affection for, knowledge of, the word that begins the writer's lifelong struggle with ideas, expressions of emotion, description of the world, choices and value judgments of every kind. And when she published in our college literary magazine her first article on the language of James Joyce, drawn from her linguistic study of Finnegans Wake, our respect for her was complete.
Now we saw that the knowledge of languages served living masterpieces as well, illuminating them and making them available to us.
In 1942 she published a book on language which has been almost continuously in print since that time. It was called The Gift of Tongues. From that title I have taken my sense of what Margaret Schlauch intended in her life of teaching, lecturing, writing, research, and study. She saw language as a gift to human beings, a subtle, various, class-laden ("the metaphoric clothing of men in society," she called it), dialectic, taboo-ridden, sexually divided vehicle for thought, feeling, poetry, fiction as well as everyday expression. Her respect for the basic tools of the writer was transmitted to us. Added to the lessons of Miss Mulligan and her ruler, Margaret Schlauch's teaching was a large part of the technical equipment I took with me when I started to write. And I have never managed to free myself from the influence of either one: the gift of tongues endures. CAPTION: Picture, Doris Gumbach; Copyright (c) 1981 by Nancy Crampton