by Tracy Barrett
Mrs. McGerr, my eleventh-grade English teacher, was said to be inflexible and stern. True to every cliché, her iron-gray hair stayed rigidly in place, and her glasses, which of course perched at the end of her nose, had none of the glitter or color that were popular in those days. She wore dull shades and sensible shoes.
And the first few classes of the school year did nothing to raise anyone’s hopes. We were required to define parts of speech and sentence structures, not just nouns and adjectives and the passive vs. active voice, but participial phrases and dependent clauses and other slippery things. We had a crash course in rhetorical devices, and soon we were taking quizzes where we had to identify underlined phrases in snippets of text as (a) litotes, (b) hysteron-proteron, or (c) chiasmus.
Things didn’t look good.
Then we started the study of literature and everything changed. The first time I saw one of Mrs. McGerr’s rare smiles was when she read aloud a few lines of Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” and one of my classmates asked her to re-read them—not because she hadn’t heard, but because she wanted to savor the elegance and humor of the words. Mrs. McGerr was delighted with her enthusiasm and happily complied. Through Shakespeare, John Donne, William Blake, all the way to recent writers, her passion for literature infected us.
Some people say that analyzing literature is like tearing apart a flower. “Why not just appreciate the beauty?” they ask. “Why destroy it?” And it’s true; clumsy analysis can be destructive.
But far from tearing the flower apart, Mrs. McGerr held a magnifying glass up to literary blossoms and showed us exactly what made them beautiful. We learned to appreciate how the skillful use of, say, hyperbole makes a particular passage more effective, the way an artist might appreciate how the color of a stamen makes a particular flower more beautiful. Or—mixing similes—she opened the back of a well-designed clock and pointed out the way the gears and levers and coils work so we could admire the clock’s beauty even more with our new understanding of the work and skill that went into it.
We hadn’t just been learning esoteric terminology when we’d had to say if a phrase was an example of metonymy or of synecdoche; knowing what these devices were and studying how great writers used them gave us tools for our own writing.
Of course when I’m writing I don’t think, “I’m using too much hypotaxis in this dialogue,” but I still use the toolbox Mrs. McGerr stocked for me almost forty years ago to repair broken prose.