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Dating : Syntax

h2>Dating : Syntax

An early lesson on the power of words

I work in an office, writing things down. I write the government, asking for money to do this and that. I write verbs like “initiate” and “disseminate” and “prioritize,” nouns like “consortia” and “constructivism.” I don’t write “seethe” or “touch” or “dusk” — nothing with one syllable, no words invested with centuries of power and imagination, nothing that appears instantly in the mind as your eyes lift each word from the page or that creeps along your spine or the insides of your wrist.

Picture a consortium. Rows of serious white men and women in blue business suits, sitting at tables with mustard-shaded tablecloths. In front of them on the tables are complimentary note pads and pitchers of water. They are debating the status of science education. Behind their voices you can hear other voices: the hum of the session next door, more suits, papers, pitchers of water, addressing some other critical issue.

It’s not my job to attend these meetings; I only help to make them happen. I drink water from an oversized plastic cup on my desk; it’s a translucent blue, with “Smoltz’s Mobil Service, White Tail, Texas” stamped on the side. The cup reminds me of other places, other syntax.

Mr. Smoltz once blew out my bicycle tire. I was standing beside him, propping up the bike as he whooshed the air into the tire, and when it blew I knew I’d been shot. Some carload of juvenile delinquents must have driven down from Houston, firing a .30-.30 out the window as they sped by, the way they’d done at a 7–11 on Telephone Road.

Mr. Smoltz is dead now, and so’s his station, torn down for a Mr. Gatti’s. Gas stations have suffered in White Tail. The Esso station is now the Cottonwood County social services office, though the pumps are still there, faded from red to a watery orange.

I picture science education in White Tail, and wonder if Mrs. Drabek still stops by the butcher shop on her way to the seventh grade, to pick up a calf’s heart for her students’ inspection. These days we call that “hands-on” science. I can feel my hands on that heart — I was the only girl who would touch it, standing in front of the class in a chef’s apron, hefting it like my brother with his shot put, looking for auricle, ventricle, vena cava.

White Tail’s a useful reference in many ways. When I write about the school principal’s importance as an instructional leader, I see Mr. Tungate, whose wife was rumored to make all his decisions on the job as well as off. My fifth-grade teacher, Miss Marshall — the strictest, sternest teacher in all of elementary and junior high — once dragged me to Mr. Tungate’s office, having caught me rabble-rousing in reading period. The school board was trying to fire the band director for playing cards with the cornet section. Inspired by the high school band, who’d staged a sit-in, I composed a petition to save his job. But Robert Kobalowski, who’d never sent or received a note in his life, passed it on while Miss Marshall was patrolling his aisle.

She marched me to Mr. Tungate’s outer office; coming out to investigate, he looked like a squirrel on a limb, deciding whether to bolt or freeze. He listened to Miss Marshall’s indictment, took the petition, and excused himself to deliberate. I watched Miss Marshall, who stood by the vacant secretary’s desk (rumor had it Mr. Tungate’s wife wouldn’t let him have a secretary; he took all his typing home to her). She was watching a row of buttons on the telephone. Sure enough, after a minute the first one lit up. Miss Marshall let out a long hiss of breath, put her hand on the phone, and picked it up. “For God’s sake, Lawrence,” she screamed, “can’t you make a decision just once in your life?”

She dropped the phone, grabbed me by the sweater, jerked me up and out of the room. We hurried back down the long corridor, the only sounds our shoes on the concrete and her hissing breath. When we got to her room, she gave me a little push toward the door, but she kept on going. I watched her walk down the porch steps, past the row of teachers’ parking, past her own beige Impala, and on down South Lombardy. I yelled to my classmates, who came running; we watched her shrink in the distance till Mr. Tungate came and rounded us up.

I wish I had that petition. In my memory it is eloquent, impassioned, inarguable. I guess Mr. Tungate threw it away. Anyway the band director lost his job, Miss Marshall left teaching to manage the White Tail auto parts store, and I went on to write grant proposals.

They say Mr. Tungate went by to see Miss Marshall the afternoon she walked off the job. They say he sat on her porch steps until well after dark, but she never did open her door. My mother called her, a few days later, to apologize for my bad behavior; Miss Marshall told her it wasn’t my fault; she’d been thinking of leaving anyway. She said to my mother, “Tell your daughter to be careful, the written word is a powerful weapon. Tell her she must pay attention to spelling and grammar. Presentation is half the battle.”

I picture Miss Marshall conducting inventory: tallying up mufflers, air filters, windshield wipers. I wonder, if I saw her now, if she’d have any advice about my career. What would she think if I were to pick up my plastic cup and walk out, past the water fountain, the color Xerox machine, past the entrance to the parking garage, and hike down Highway 33 to White Tail? I do keep a pair of Nikes in my file drawer, though I have to say, if it happens in August, I’ll probably drive.

What do you think?

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