Lately there has been a meme going around Facebook demonstrating a funny way to test for passive voice. It states that if you can insert “by zombies” after your verb, then you have passive voice. Now several writer friends of mine have come up with enough examples to prove this a fairly unreliable tool, but I still think it’s imaginative and fun.
I have to admit that despite the flaws in the zombie meme, I love teaching tools like this because they remind me of Mr. Thomas, my sixth grade English teacher. Not was he one of those influential souls who infused in me a love of writing, but he had the single most memorable way to teach proper writing skills to restless adolescents.
Mr. Thomas taught the period right before lunch, and generally everyone was hungry and impatient to get through the class. On the first day, when we looked up at the front of the room, we realized that this wasn’t going to be your average, dull English class. There, taking up three quarters of a twelve-foot blackboard at the front of the room, was the outline of an enormous dragon, drawn in green chalk.
Mr. Thomas walked in and acted as if he didn’t see the large illustration. When asked, he simply smiled, as if we had just asked him if the Easter Bunny was planning on hiding eggs under our desks. “Just wait,” he said with a mischievous grin. And that was all he would say on the topic.
As it turned out, he didn’t explain the dragon for a good two weeks, despite our badgering. I was a rotten student and easily distractible, so after the first day of hoping for an explanation, I returned to my usual habits of doodling, day-dreaming or getting lost in whatever book we were covering in class.
One morning, we walked into class to find the dragon spitting orange chalk fire across the blackboard. As soon as the last student had filed into the classroom, Mr. Thomas emerged from the supply closet, wearing a plastic gladiator’s helmet and brandishing a wooden sword.
“Today,” he cried out (in a pretty decent imitation of Sean Connery’s distinctive brogue), “we are going to slay the dragon!” He pointed the wooden sword at the blackboard. “Are you ready?”
I was only mildly disappointed to find out that the “dragon” was really a sentence and when Mr. Thomas said “slay” he meant that we would be breaking it down and learning how to identify the pieces. He did this by writing the sentence inside the dragon. The subject was the head; the verb was the heart. Prepositional phrases made up the tail(s). But nobody seemed to care that we were actually learning something that should normally be boring us to tears. Oh no, that day we were all knights charged with killing a fire-breathing beast that had terrorized the blackboard for what seemed like an eternity.
One by one Mr. Thomas invited each of us to don the helmet, pick up a sword (in the form of a piece of purple chalk) and slay the dragon by slicing off its tails, attacking the head and crossing out its heart. And one by one, we came up to the board, shrieking and laughing, slashing and stabbing, until the dragon was nearly obliterated by purple scribbles.
I doubt any sixth grader has ever loved breaking down sentences as much as our class did the day they became dragons.
While my knowledge of writing was polished through other teachers and years of practice, I will never forget Mr. Thomas. I know I’ll never figure out where and when to use those dangling modifiers and I still think adverbs can be my friend. But even if I forget everything else I’ve ever learned, I will always remember that all sentences – like dragons and the best of teachers – have a head and a heart.