Mrs. Oatis was serious about the English language. She was serious about her students using and writing the English language correctly and without error. College preparation was the aim. When you were seated at your metal and laminated plastic desk in her class, pencil poised above college-ruled notebook paper, you were at attention and there were expectations. Grammar Boot Camp could have been an apt name for the class, as instructions for syntax and explanations of comma appropriateness were not rules to be toyed with. You didn’t put on a thinking cap; you donned a thinking helmet, and that helmet protected you from the bombardment of temptations to regard English usage in a lackadaisical fashion. You were not allowed to use the word “very” to describe anything. EVER. You were to use more descriptive and creative adjectives. There was excellence to be achieved, you see.
Mrs. Oatis was serious about her appearance. From head to toe she was polished, beginning with her stiffly coiffed, bouffant widow’s peak, Mary Tyler Moore auburn hair. She had deeply blue eyes, slightly watery but sharply alert and kind, framed above by meticulously penciled, parenthesis-shaped eyebrows that matched her hair. Around her neck dangled her ever-present cat glasses on the ends of a beaded lariat, that she drew up to her eyes and down to her nose at regular intervals, when she wasn’t peering over them at you in protest over an incorrect answer on a quiz question. Her blouses were starched and preppy, as were her perfectly hemmed skirts and pants. Her loafers clicked and carried her girlish figure around the room in their beautifully polished glory. I loved her and I feared her. She deducted 3 points for a comma error, which automatically drove your grade down to a B. She was my Grammar Goddess and I lived to please her.
Mrs. Oatis taught us Shakespeare and poetry and creative writing. We studied Othello and she gave us theme options for the paper she wanted us to write on it. My choice was to re-write Act V, seeing as how it was a tragic ending. I was uncomfortable with tragedy at the tender age of 16, and preferred a happy ending. I channeled my best Shakespearean writing voice, changed the ending to everyone staying alive, and landed an A+ on that paper. It was my proudest academic achievement in all four years of high school.
Mrs. Oatis had expectations.
It was the greatest gift a teacher ever gave me.