Life without a predicate

Sam Smith

I awoke this morning wondering what a predicate was. It was at first an embarrassing thought and then, when I remembered that I had lived my whole life as a writer never knowing what a predicate was (except briefly after I occasionally looked it up), I felt better. Maybe it really didn’t matter.

Certainly my three high school English teachers didn’t seem to think so. I can’t remember any of them explaining it. They were too busy with other stuff, like getting us excited about interesting books or having us write about new things in an imaginative and readable way.

For them it seemed to have worked. One became a publisher. Another taught future English teachers at Yale. And the third went on to coach other teachers for decades. Time Magazine once decribed David Mallery as having “become the nation’s most skilled conveyor of one teacher’s technique to another.”

I went on to be a journalist, and at one point – despite not knowing what a predicate was – I was able to write nine radio newscasts a day, including three between five pm and six thirty.

Years later, I was president of the parents’ association of the John Eaton public school in DC where the principal Pat Greer didn’t worry about predicates either. I wrote once:

The curriculum at the school was colored by two impressive biases. One was a prejudice towards writing. The kids were always writing something: diaries, plays, stories, speeches, advertisements. The school clearly understood the shortest route to good writing: do it.

The other emphasis was the arts, particularly drama and music. With excellent teachers and adequate time, the kids threw themselves into their projects as though Broadway rather than high school was the next step.

I became conscious of how serious the dramatic side of Eaton was one day as I was taking a group of 4th graders home from an event. One kid stepped carelessly into the street and a companion called her back, saying, “Be careful, you could ruin your whole life that way.’ Another added, “yeah, or even your career.” Once safely in the car, there commenced the sort of surreal debate that only the young can withstand. The topic (clearly involving the stage rather than the lesser trades) was: what is more important – your life or your career?

As I read about the corporate takeover of public education – aka Race to the Top and Common Core – promoted by the likes of Arnie Duncan and Bill Gates, I become angry not just for political or intellectual reasons. I become angry because of all the children being denied the fun and usefulness of learning about writing and reading not as a test to pass but as a wonderful part of a life to experience. Reducing life to data, business school cliches and rules is not just stupid, it’s a cruel punishment.

I don’t know what filled the time when Arnie Duncan and Bill Gates think I should have been learning what a predicate was, but I’m delighted they weren’t around to ruin it. Or the rest of my education.

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