A Grammar Lesson

From To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:

Daylight…in my mind, the night faded. It was daytime and the neighborhood was busy. Miss Stephanie Crawford crossed the street to tell the latest to Miss Rachel. Miss Maudie bent over her azaleas. It was summertime, and two children scampered down the sidewalk toward a man approaching in the distance. The man waved, and the children raced each other to him.

It was still summertime, and the children came closer. A boy trudged down the sidewalk dragging a fishing pole behind him. A man stood waiting with his hands on his hips. Summertime, and his children played in the front yard with their friend, enacting a strange little drama of their own invention.

It was fall, and his children fought on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Dubose’s. The boy helped his sister to her feet, and they made their way home. Fall, and his children trotted to and fro around the corner, the day’s woes and triumphs on their faces. They stopped at an oak tree, delighted, puzzled, apprehensive.

Winter, and his children shivered at the front gate, silhouetted against a blazing house. Winter, and a man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog.

Summer, and he watched his children’s heart break. Autumn again, and Boo’s children needed him.

Once they understand that Boo killed Bob Ewell, another issue looms for the students. We haven’t talked about Boo’s motive for stabbing Bob, and by now they realize this: Every action has a motive. Of course the students know Boo cares about the children. He leaves gifts for them in a live oak tree (until his brother Nathan cements up the hole): a broken pocket watch, a spelling medal, soap dolls, chewing gum, and other artifacts of a young boy’s life. But how deep is this caring? What is its nature?

The answer is in the paragraph above, which appears at the very end of the book when Scout is standing on the Radley porch. I read this section slowly, carefully—sometimes two times before anyone notices the author’s sleight of pen.

Finally, this comes, sometimes tentatively, sometimes in an explosion of understanding:

“’Boo’s children needed him.’ He thinks of Jem and Scout as his children!”

“He left presents for them in the tree.”

“The pocket watch! Fathers give their sons their watches.”

“He put a blanket around Scout at the fire!”

“But the text says ‘A man walked into the street, fired a gun’: That’s Atticus.”

“This is confusing.”

I ask them then to think about what the author has done and to find the exact place in the text where she does it.

“She says ‘his children’ and we think Atticus.”

“But she means Boo. We assumed Atticus…”

“Because all the details are about him!”

“Because he’s their father!”

“Because we know the rule!”

We’ve been talking about pronouns for some time. I’ve pounded the rule into their heads, and they can recite it from memory: Every pronoun has an antecedent with which it must agree in case, number, and gender. Antecedent comes from Latin: ante (before) and cedere (to go). The term makes perfect sense: The antecedent comes before the pronoun.

“The true antecedent comes after the noun here!’

I can almost hear low whistles.


They like it.

And they understand the depth of Boo’s feeling. He cares for Scout and Jem as a parent does—and parents would do anything to protect their children. Even put themselves at risk to come to their children’s rescue.

So in a way, this lesson, just like the last one, is about the danger of making assumptions—and this blog entry is a plug for grammar instruction.

Sure, the students could “get it”—could understand they’d been misled—without knowing the rule. I could have said that the author just flipped the men’s names to create an effect. But the trick is more subtle than that. Atticus’ name is never used. Understanding the technicalities of Harper Lee’s maneuver reveals to the students—maybe for the first time—that author’s craft their work. Understanding precisely what occurred in the text tells the students that writers are deliberate.

I’m not saying no teacher will ever have to visit pronoun antecedents again with these students. No, it takes repeated interactions with any concept to make the point indelibly. But being able to use the language of grammar to explain the author’s technique gives students a sense of authority, of control over language.

We want students to do close analysis of text—meanings of words, arrangement of details, syntactical analysis. Grammar helps us do this.

All by itself, though, grammar instruction can be pretty dull for a whole lot of kids. Granted, there are some who take to it. (Believe it or not, one year I met after-school with a group of grammar devotees who called themselves “The Diagramming Club.”) But for most young students, we need to hang our grammar lessons on some kind of hook.

Harper Lee’s is a classy one.

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