27: Prepositions

27: Prepositions

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers


A philosopher once said, “Half of good philosophy is good grammar.”

~Aloysius Martinich

I was in eighth grade and a reluctant student at St. Anne School in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. One day, Sister Joan announced that we were going to learn about prepositional phrases. Yawn. She explained that prepositional phrases start with a preposition and end with a noun or pronoun. Yawn. “There are only forty-plus commonly used prepositions,” she continued. Double yawn. “And everyone must memorize them.” What? Memorize prepositions? That sure captured everyone’s attention. The class collectively groaned. This would make learning the eight parts of speech easier, she promised.

Sister Joan recited the forty-plus prepositions as easily as saying the days of the week. She wrote them on the chalkboard in alphabetical order, in groups of mainly four for us to copy.

“Once you memorize the first eight, move on to the next four or eight until you’ve memorized all of them. Recite them on the school bus, at home, on the weekend. Sing them to your favorite song, substituting the prepositions for the song’s words. Practice, practice, practice,” she advised.

I tried, but sometimes I got confused. My parents helped me because English wasn’t my strong subject. When I had the first eight done, I moved on, but then I forgot the first ones. Slowly, eventually, I succeeded. Grammar became easier once I could spot and write prepositional phrases, just as Sister Joan had promised. While challenging us, she made grammar fun. She truly cared about us.

In addition to singing the prepositions, she shared other useful language nuggets. I still remember her catchy phrase: “Good better best, never let it rest, until your good is better, and your better is best.”

After high school and a stint in the Army, I enrolled in college on the G.I. Bill, majoring in — my parents couldn’t believe it — English!

In creative writing class in my junior year, I recited the prepositions for my professor and classmates. I explained how my eighth grade teacher, Sister Joan, had often said that a strategically placed prepositional phrase could add depth and variety to sentences. Impressed, my professor asked for a copy of Sister Joan’s list and other tricks of the trade that I remembered.

After graduating from college, I landed a job teaching eighth grade English in a New Jersey public school. I bent over backwards to make grammar easy and fun the way Sister Joan had. I started with a unit on the eight parts of speech, with prepositions coming first. Memorization was the cornerstone.

Before long, the students were singing the prepositions to their favorite tunes. One year, since it was near Christmas, we all sang the prepositions to “Jingle Bells.” As I recall, it was quite boisterous. The principal stuck his head in my classroom door. “George, is everything okay?”

“Of course,” I assured him.

I also required students to recite the prepositions in ten seconds or less. If you thought that was impossible, then you don’t know eighth graders. They welcomed the challenge, and with no homework as a motivator, they got right down to business. I pulled out a stopwatch and timed the students daily to gauge their progress: 21, 16, 12, then bingo, l0 seconds!

I taught eighth grade English for thirty-eight years. Looking back, teaching English was a tough but worthwhile job, and I loved every day. One of my former students, Sharon, followed in my footsteps and became a middle-school English teacher. She pushes her students to gallop through the prepositions, too, with excellent results. “How low can you go?” she roars, with stopwatch in hand. I laugh at the sight and see elements of myself and Sister Joan in her.

Now when I meet former students in town or at the mall, they rarely say, “Hi, Mr. Flynn. How are you?” Instead, they smile and belt out the following: about, above, across, after; against, along, amid, among; around, at, before, behind; below, beneath, beside, besides; between, beyond, by, down; except, for, from, in; into, of, off, on; over, through, throughout; till, to, toward, under, until, unto, up, upon; with, within, without.

~George M. Flynn

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