Apostrophes, ships and the 3rd grader who ended up writing stories about it…

Shortly after I shared my last blog entry about revisiting my first home with my parents as guides, my Mom emailed me with this:

“All that beautiful prose from the 3rd grader who didn’t understand apostrophes.”

My first reaction was feeling very honored by her words given that I was retelling her story about my beginnings in Colorado, as I was too young to have my own story.  Secondly, I was touched that she remembered the story about the difficulties I had with grammar in the 3rd grade, specifically with the placement of apostrophies.

For whatever reason, I have more memories from 3rd grade than any other in elementary school.  I loved my teacher.  I loved her shoes. I watched those cool red fringe-toed shoes walk up and down the narrow aisle of the temporary trailer classroom, demonstrating to a captivated audience how Indians would walk without making a sound… toe heel, toe heel, toe heel.  It was crowded in that tiny trailer classroom and maybe because the situations weren’t ideal, she was just a little more patient with us than a teacher in a normal-sized classroom would be.  One of my favorite memories was when the Sacajawea book would be pulled out every afternoon after recess and Mrs. Faires would read to us. I was mesmerized. I held onto every word and for the first time, the notion that school could be fun and interesting took hold.  She made that year of being crowded into the tiny temporary classroom one of my favorites, and even though elbows were bumped as we did out lessons in our pushed together desks and I just happened to be seated next to the boy who sweated more than anyone else in the classroom, I would not have traded those squeezed together conditions for a normal classroom.  It felt special for some reason… like we were special.  All that love went out the small louvered trailer window when the lesson on apostrophes and ownership began.

It’s not that I didn’t understand the the concept of ownership and placement of the apostrophe, it’s that I did not understand my Alabama bred teacher’s accent.  When she gave the explanation of “ownership,” what I heard was “on a ship,” which made little sense to me, especially given that I lived in Kansas and could count on one hand how many times I had actually seen a ship. Were ships really that important that they got their own apostrophe when used in a sentence?

After hearing Mrs. Faires’ explanation on apostrophes and possession, my conclusions were to use an apostrophe when whomever or whatever were “on a ship,” or “showed on a ship” as my teacher explained it.  I wasn’t sure what “showed on a ship” was, short of the visual of people on a ship, which was simple enough… or was it?  This all makes a whole lot more sense when I’m able to voice the words out loud and show that “ownership” sounds like “on a ship” when spoken with a heavy southern drawl.  I usually did pretty well with understanding new assignments in school, especially when they weren’t of the math variety, but my 8 year-old, wanting to please self, was beginning to get discouraged when worksheet after worksheet were handed back to me with an embarrassing amount of red ink on them.  Even the boy who sweated so much, was getting good marks and happy faces on his returned papers.  And then there was the amount of time it took me to complete the worksheets.  While the other kids seemed to breeze right through the sentences, without having to look up in thought or confusion, I would read each sentence over and over again while trying desperately to find the ship, the boat or out of desperation, simply the water in the sentence so that I’d have clearance to add my apostrophe.  It seemed to me to be a futile exercise as few, if any sentences, made reference to a ship or for that matter, any maritime reference at all, but none of the other students were questioning the absurdity, so in trying to fit in with my peers, I kept quiet and kept searching… for the ship in the sentence.

More than once Mrs. Faires brought me up to her desk and would explain the “on a ship” concept to which I would share my frustrations of not understanding what “on a ship” had to do with most of the sentences.  Of course in this now comedy of errors, she heard my words speak Southern to her and would explain, yet again,  that “on a ship” requires an apostrophe, hoping that eventually it would all make sense to me.  After failing exercise after exercise, some how, some way, someone who did not speak with a heavy southern drawl, put it together that what I was hearing was different than what my teacher was actually saying.  My Mom eventually shared the story with my teacher, Mrs. Faires, and I’m sure it gave her pause every year when teaching the concept of “ownership” to a new group of 3rd graders.

The one in the middle sporting the Bob Dylan look and the attitude smirk,  wasn’t about to admit to anyone that she didn’t understand why ships garnered so much importance that they got their own apostrophe… especially in Kansas for Pete’s sake!

I’ve got to wonder how long this would have gone on had someone not stumbled onto the problem, given that I was too embarrassed and too insecure to admit that I didn’t have a clue as to what the teacher was trying to teach me.  This insecurity would resurface again with my 7th grade Algebra teacher, who was from Brazil,  and spoke with a heavy accent.  The difference this time though, was that the rest of the class was hearing Mr. La Torre the same way I did, so would throw their hands up in question before I had to.  I ended up struggling with Algebra through college and have to wonder if I had had a teacher who I could understand and felt comfortable simply asking for help, would seeing the x’s and y’s still throw me into panic mode today?  Or am I simply more of a words person than a numbers person?  I’m grateful that my stumble with the apostrophes in the 3rd grade didn’t ruin me for the act of writing, the way x’s and y’s did for me in math,  as it’s been something I’ve loved and enjoyed for as long as I can remember.

Thank you, Mrs. Faires, for giving me pause and a smile every time I place an apostrophe, whether there’s a ship in the sentence or not.  And thank you, Mom, for not forgetting the story and continually encouraging my putting pen to paper.


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