Language Artists
by Margaret Erhart

Our middle school principal, Miss Basinger, frightened us. She was over six feet tall, even in her flat tie shoes. She wore heavy gray skirts and kept her hair in a tight French twist. Her eyes missed nothing, her lips were thin and unsmiling. Her skin was pale and freckled, which surprised me. I didn’t know adults had freckles, especially on their nose.
        Besides being our principal, she taught a class called Language. At the beginning of the school year, every 7th grader dreaded it, but by the time summer vacation came, most of us had fallen in love. With language, that is. With the great game of grammar, of diagramming sentences, and the everyday archeology of digging down to the roots of words.
        In her teaching, Miss Basinger armed herself with two things: passion for her subject, and multi-colored chalk. All these years later I can still remember the charge-ahead red of verbs, the royal blue of nouns. Prepositions and their phrases were written in bright yellow. We filled the blackboard with color. The more complex the sentence, the more color appeared. And shapes. We drew rectangles around subjects, circles around objects, triangles around verbs. By the end of class the sentence “A frisky dog sank his nose in Miss Mary Todd Lincoln’s wedding cake” looked more like a work of Picasso than a 7th grade grammar lesson.
        That was Miss Basinger’s great gift. She showed us how to see language, not just hear it. In her class we could order our thoughts in a visual way that led to understanding. We were smart all of a sudden. We knew our objects from our predicates, our dangling modifiers from our hanging prepositions. In her low, rumbly voice she’d call for adjectives, and we’d jump at the chance to write “serendipitous” or “frenetic” in blazing orange on the board.
        One day, right before spring vacation, Miss Basinger surprised us all. The blackboard looked like a colorful road map. Arrows shot off this way and that, highways of subordinate clauses. We were driving through prefixes and suffixes, trying to get to the heart of the word “contradiction,” when our teacher, our principal, the commanding presence who had once made us shake in our shoes (and still made us tremble from time to time), threw her hands in the air and started to laugh. Not at us, but at the beauty of language. We had never heard such a sound before, nor seen such a sight. It was like watching an owl come to rest on a snowy branch at dusk.

photo: James Rattigan

Margaret Erhart’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Best American Spiritual Writing 2005. Her commentaries have aired on NPR. She won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize and was a finalist for an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. She lives and works in Flagstaff, Arizona. You can find her at