The Most Dangerous Game–Of Gourds, Objects of Prepositions, and Serial Commas

When I was in the eighth grade, I read “The Most Dangerous Game,” the classic 1924 short story written by Richard Connell. My English teacher that year, Miss Goggin, a fun woman in her fifties who continually looked for ways to approach topics in an unconventional manner, decided that every student would read the story, and every student would then give a brief oral report on it.



“Now, I’m hoping this will inspire each of you to look at the story in unique and different ways,” she said on the cold, gray November morning she issued the assignment. “The last thing any of us wants is to hear the same report, verbatim, over and over.”

Good intentions, perhaps, but on this occasion, Miss Goggin’s instincts backfired.  Of the twenty-five or so oral reports on “The Most Dangerous Game,” nearly all were, if not identical, then close to it.  Even Miss Goggin admitted defeat halfway through.  “This wasn’t one of my superlative ideas,” she said, and then:  “Next!  Kimberly, regale us with your synopsis of the story . . .”  No doubt, Kimberly groaned inwardly as she rose from her chair to give the same report we had already heard a dozen times over.



Thinking about all this now, it strikes me that another very dangerous game, for many people, revolves around English grammar.  Even the mention of the term “grammar” might give some the shivers.  During my eighth-grade English class, it seemed Miss Goggin made it her personal mission to instill in us an appreciation for grammar.  She didn’t want us avoiding it, or letting “the editor handle it.”  One day, she brought in a handful of gourds, using them as props to help diagram sentences.  I can’t remember the specifics of that lesson very well, but I’ll always remember the gourds.  They stayed in the classroom for weeks, and became an ongoing, running joke between Miss Goggin and our class.



One of her pet peeves was the misuse of objects of prepositions, especially when someone made the mistake deliberately in an attempt to speak or write in a “correct” or formal manner.  She hammered this home so many times, I doubt I’ve used a subject, rather than an object, of a preposition since!  “Don’t ever say, ‘Between you and I,’ she instructed on multiple occasions, often punctuating the proclamation with a firm shake of the head or even a shrill sound that wasn’t quite a scream, but awfully close.  “Or, ‘for you and I.’  Prepositions take objects, not subjects!  Take away the ‘you.’  Would you say, ‘For I‘?”  And then she would pause for dramatic effect.  Point taken.



I remember her lessons fondly.  Her “Most Dangerous Game” fiasco notwithstanding, Miss Goggin’s ideas hit much more often than they missed.  Her class was always lively and interesting, and I discovered, even then, that I was the odd sort who enjoyed grammar.  Grammar is a building block, a collection of tools–a chisel here, a hammer there, perhaps a paintbrush and a socket wrench over there, a few inches to the left.  Used properly, the tools can polish and hone prose, cleaning it up and pruning it to maximum effect.



But it is a “dangerous game,” indeed.  On Fridays, I tutor writing at a local college.  And when students come to me with their first drafts of essays and term papers, they invariably say, “Can you check it for grammar?  I don’t do grammar!”  I gladly go over the nuts and bolts with them, and hopefully the effort is worthwhile and helpful.  But I tend to believe most students aren’t absorbing the grammar lessons all that much.



“See, here, it looks like your professor is using the style that calls for serial commas,” I said to one student just last month.

“Serial commas?” she said.  “Is that, like, serial killers or something?”




There is no doubt about it.  Grammar is, for many, the dentist drill of the writing trade, the necessary evil that, if not mastered, at least needs to be understood and properly applied.  It isn’t as exciting as literary symbolism, alliteration, powerful imagery, or multi-layered characters who grab the reader’s attention and never let go.  And, it may be argued, it isn’t as important, either.  Certainly a raw talent can be honed; breathtaking prose that inspires and awes, yet is littered with technical errors, can be smoothed over and perfected–and surely will garner more praise and attention than a grammatically flawless but uninspired and wooden piece.



Good grammar does not guarantee a good writer.  But it goes a long way toward making a good writer better.  Additionally, when is it okay to break the rules, as it were, and use sentence fragments, split infinitives, end sentences with prepositions, and so on?  The answer is, in my eyes, often!  Even so, knowing the rules helps us to see when it’s appropriate and advantageous to break them.



It would be foolish to believe that many people will ever truly enjoy English grammar.  The endless rules, exceptions to rules, and various styles and usages are enough to make anyone’s head spin.  I suppose it helps when you can look back at an old teacher from your childhood who some way, somehow, made grammar fun.

So, thanks, Miss Goggin!

You made “the dangerous game” of grammar a gourd-filled and lifelong adventure.



Thanks so much for reading!


The Challenge of Writing . . . When There Are No Words

It was one of those landmark days, the kind of day where people later ask, “Where were you when that happened?”  The kind of day that leaves its mark, whether you want it to or not, intractable, like a brand on your soul.

It was Tuesday, January 28, 1986, two days after I had celebrated my birthday.  I was in junior high that year, and my love for all things astronomy had me fired up and eager for the events that were to take place on that cold, blustery winter morning.



It was big news and a highly anticipated moment–the launching of the space shuttle Challenger, complete with its seven-person crew, including the first teacher ever to venture into space, Christa McAuliffe.  But it was a school day, after all, and at the time of the launch, I was in Earth Science class, taking a quiz.  The teacher, a bald, bespectacled man in his midfifties who gave us quizzes twice a week, without fail or exception, had the radio turned on, with live coverage of the launch.  It was hard to concentrate on the quiz.



At 11:38 a.m., EST, liftoff!  The voices on the radio buzzed with excitement.  I remember putting down my pencil, looking out the window, imagining . . .



But not for long.  I didn’t want to flunk the quiz, so I proceeded to the next question.  I read it once, twice, finding it hard to focus on the words.  As I finally honed in on the answer, the voices on the radio began to shout.  At first, I tried to ignore them.  I figured they must have been excited, that’s all.  But the shouting didn’t stop; it intensified.  Something clearly wasn’t right.

That’s when the words, tinny, with a hint of static, filtered through the classroom.  “The space shuttle Challenger has exploded!”

What?  I was sure I was misunderstanding, my hearing compromised by the distance and volume–the radio was a good thirty feet away from me, and not turned up very loud.  But then I looked at my desk mate, Anita.  She and I had known each other since we were toddlers.  We’d gone to kindergarten together, lived a half mile apart, on the same suburban street.  The expression on her face told me immediately that I had not misheard.



Pandemonium on the radio.  Our teacher turned the volume up, and I thought of the absurdity of trying to take a quiz at a moment like this.  The flight had lasted all of 73 seconds before disaster struck.  The commentators were all shouting, exclaiming, already speculating what might have gone wrong.  In the desk in front of me, Joe and Tony, two good friends, looked back at Anita and me, open-mouthed, wide-eyed.

There were no words.  What could anyone say?  We just sat there, staring into the empty space of the room, at the radio, as if we might be able to will the reporters to say something different, or perhaps turn back time to just before the launch, and warn the crew not to fly.



There are no words.  I said it again and again in my mind.

There are no words.


That night, at home, I watched clip after clip of the nightmare.  It stung and horrified on an almost personal level, as I had entertained the idea of becoming an astronaut when I grew up.  I loved adventure, the planets, the endless blackness of outer space, the promise and mystery of a universe waiting to be discovered.



I didn’t want to continue watching the shuttle explode, over and over, but I couldn’t seem to help it.  I stared at the television screen deep into the night, hoping for the impossible.

Finally I went to bed.  But I couldn’t sleep.  I thought of the crew–how long were they even aware that there was a problem on the Challenger?  Did they have ten seconds’ warning?  Five?  Two?  Or were they caught completely by surprise?  And the families, the loved ones . . .



There are no words.

But then I thought about that.  Was that really true?  The destruction of the space shuttle Challenger was a catastrophe, something that would never be forgotten, but life was full of moments, both good and bad, that so often seemed beyond the purview of language.  Even little things, precious things, were hard to put into words:  a first kiss, moving away from home for the first time, falling in love, saying good-bye.  And didn’t everyone experience their own personal canyons and tragedies?  The death of a loved one, the betrayal of a close friend, the loss of a lifelong dream, blown apart like shrapnel on the wind.



How could any of these experiences be captured, truly, in words?

Life, I thought, as I lay there, awake, unable to close my eyes.  How can anyone really write about life, the things that matter?  The things that resonate?

Even then, as a junior high student, I knew that, for me, writing was akin to breathing.  I couldn’t imagine a life without it.  But most of my stories as a kid were adventures, space explorations, without much depth or emotion.  I sensed I was arriving at a crossroads.  The way I felt lying there, the thoughts swirling in my head, the ideas and motivations abounding, I wanted so much to be able to convey it all in a story, through the power of the written word.



Words often seemed so lacking, so trite.  How could raw emotion, the depths of the heart, be expressed through them?  Could they?  Or was the whole thing futile?



That night, I resolved to try, to learn, to find a way.  And if I didn’t, or couldn’t, I would keep trying, and never give up.  I wanted to do more than just send readers on grand explorations to other planets or faraway eras.  I wanted to be able to move them, to have them see themselves on the page, to laugh and cry and engage with the characters.



I thought of other stories I had read, where this wonderful thing, this literary sleight of hand, as it were, had happened, where I magically was able to relate to some black-and-white construct on the printed page, the bones and cartilage fleshed out with muscle and skin and heart, imagined and created by a writer decades, or even centuries, ago.



My hopes and goals as a writer have not changed since that long, sleepless night thirty years ago.  Perhaps all writers, all artists, feel this way.  We want to create something meaningful, something that reaches others and moves them, makes them laugh at the triumphs and cry at the losses, makes them pull for our characters and root for them as if they were old friends.

We want to be able to fill in the gaps, to convey on the page the pain and suffering, the gladness and joy, the broken dreams and irretrievable, lost hopes of childhood, the promise of a better tomorrow in spite of it all.



We want to write, and communicate, and share, and express . . . when there are no words.

Thanks so much for reading!


%d bloggers like this: