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eagle tale

illustration by Shannon Mooney ('94)
In memory Beanies, tennis shoes, fumbles and lots of ice by Ernest Caddell ('40)

Most likely I'll be the only one to cite Miss Mary C. Sweet as an important influence from North Texas days. She taught English, after all, and nobody likes English. Worse, she believed in (whisper the word) grammar.

She was a teacher — a dragon, some said — of the old school. There was no nonsense about her; she said what she thought, and didn't particularly care whether she hurt her students' little feelings. One student's vapid comment in class, for instance, evoked the response, "Oh, terrible!"

I did like English. When I entered North Texas in 1950, I thought I was a mighty good writer. On getting back the first paper I wrote for Miss Sweet's English 131A, though, I was chagrined to see it almost covered with red marks. She had given it close attention and marked it conscientiously and thoroughly, and she expected all of her students to respond with the same conscience and thoroughness. I tried, but my corrections came back with more red marks, as did everyone else's.

Not surprisingly, many resented those red marks. They said that she should be named Miss Bitter, and they said a lot more, too. But some of us studied those marks and tried hard to write so as not to get so many of them. We tried to pay attention to every word we used, every sentence we constructed, every mark of punctuation we inserted or decided to leave out.

We studied everything we wrote, to make sure that it was unambiguous and reasonably sensible. We studied the order in which we presented our ideas, to make sure that they flowed meaningfully from one into the next.

The effort paid off. Maybe two-thirds of the way into the semester, when Miss Sweet returned an eight- or 10-page paper to me, I leafed through it and found, to my amazement, that two pages were actually free of red. In a routine conference a day or two later, I mentioned to her that I had been pleased about those pages. Of course she looked them over and made some marks.

I've chuckled about those marks for all these 55 years. She wasn't being perverse or cranky; she was just making sure she hadn't overlooked anything that needed to be called to my attention.

A couple of years later, partly because of Miss Sweet's influence and encouragement, I changed my major to English. I got a master's and became an English teacher myself. I wasn't as good as Miss Sweet; I couldn't make my college freshmen understand and accept that there was good reason for all those marks I put on their work (yes, in red), and that they'd be better off if they studied the marks and tried to avoid repeating offenses.

After five years, I left the teaching profession and went to professional editing, mostly technical, first at a research institute affiliated with the University of Michigan and then for IBM in the United States and, for nearly four years, in Japan. I've learned from sources other than Miss Sweet, of course, but the habits of close attention that I started learning in her English 131A were what started me off.

Now, though I'm retired, I still do some freelance editing. Every time I stop and think about how to revise a sentence, or how to punctuate one, or whether an author has put his or her thoughts down in an order that contributes to understanding, I show the influence of Miss Mary C. Sweet.



About the author:

Thomas Way is now mostly retired after four decades as an editor and writer in the United States and Japan, but is still freelancing and active in the Rocky Mountain Publishing Professionals Guild. He says he's "delighted to do a little something to remind people of how good Miss Sweet was."










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