Mrs. Whitcomb

Mrs. Whitcomb must have been about as old as I am now — 61 — because otherwise South Orange Junior High would have made her retire. In my memory, though, she is ancient — a tall, ramrod-straight, primly dressed old lady with a perpetually unsmiling face. She taught seventh-grade English (the first year of junior high in those days) and everybody feared her — for good reason. First, she spoke in a refined accent that hovered somewhere between British and southern — either way, intimidating, especially since her chin quivered, which made her look as though that formality was holding her back from exploding. 

It was in Mrs. Whitcomb’s class (God help you if you pronounced her name “Witcomb.”) that I memorized Alfred Noyes’s poem The Highwaymanwhich taught me for the first time about metaphor. (“The moon was a ghostly galleon…”) We also read and recited for each other Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigadewhich Mrs. Whitcomb insisted we pronounce “Charge of the Light BRIGADE,” not “Charge of the LIGHT Brigade,” as most of us were wont to do. “The Brigade is what the poem celebrates, not the adjective ‘light,’ she explained. “We properly put the emphasis on the subject, not the descriptive.”

What mostly remains with me is what a stickler she was for grammar and syntax. Anyone who asked, “Mrs. Whitcomb, can I go to the bathroom?” was sure to get in reply, “I’m sure you can, but you may not.”

Tell her that you pen ran out of ink, and she’d reply, “Did it run right back? Or are you trying to say, ‘my pen’s ink supply is exhausted?'” Write in a paper that those who remained of the light brigade’s six hundred horsemen were glad to finally reach safety, and her red pen — flashing like a Cossack’s saber — would reverse the order of “finally” and “to” in order not to split the infinitive. Tell her that Liz Milner was the one you hoped to go to the dance with, and she’d extend a crooked index finger skyward and say, “Liz Milner is the one with whom I’d like to go to the dance.” Mrs. Whitcomb was the first to explain to me that the first and last words of a sentence were the most powerful and that to end a sentence with a preposition is to sacrifice power. “Prepositions are weak words. Better to end on “the dance” — or better, Liz Milner, than on “with,” she told me, and I don’t think I’ve broken that rule, writing or speaking, more than a dozen times since then.

Anybody who knows me knows how deeply ingrained are Mrs. Whitcomb’s lessons, because I tend to make a nuisance of myself correcting people’s speech in just this way, but unbidden. 

As I look back on Mrs. Whitcomb from the high hill of my old age, I’d like to pin a medal on her. All teachers want to be liked, I imagine, and I suppose that she was no different. But she sacrificed being liked — made herself hated, in fact — in order to force into our heads the tools we needed to appreciate and master this beautiful language of ours. That was heroic of her, a huge sacrifice in the day-to-day comfort and gratification of a hard job. I would like very much to express to her my gratitude. 

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