This summer, I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about flocks of geese. There were other flocks as well. Although, don’t ask me about the other flocks, I’ve blocked them out.

Tonight, on this quiet evening near the end of August, I’m sitting drinking a glass of red wine. I’m celebrating because I wrote my final grammar exam this afternoon. It’s over. I’m relieved that I survived my summer “flock block” and took my first “baby step.”

As I take a sip of my wine, I also take stock of my journey into the world of adult continuing education – where I’m headed and where I’ve been. Where have I been this summer, anyway? I’ve been nowhere near cottage country. Let’s just say that I’ve been, instead, in “grammatical purgatory.” I’ve been making amends for everything that I didn’t learn or forgot from my college days.

This whole foray into continuing education began at the end of spring. I’d finished my teaching year and had a free stretch of time in the summer before me. I’d been feeling stymied, having taught ESL to adult immigrants for more than a decade, and wanted to move forward, but how to do this, I wasn’t quite sure.

“Maybe I should take a writing course,” I said to my husband.

For a brief moment, I had a glimpse of where courses might take me if I let them: I imagined myself writing at a white desk. It had a vase of white flowers along with a card from Brad Pitt on it: “Thank you for giving me the role of a lifetime. Yours, Brad. ” I envisioned my life as a professional writer. If I’d let myself admit it, the truth was that this is always what I wanted to do. And where I’d always wanted to go.
“Do it,” he said. “What’s holding you back?”

“Fear of failure combined with inertia.”

That would have been my response if I were to answer truthfully – if I were to, as Dr. Phil says, “Get real.” I’d been watching a lot of him and Oprah at the time and knew that, to use late-afternoon-talk-show-ese, I was going to have to face the fear and take a “baby step.” I needed to try something new. And I needed it bad.

“Nothing,” I said. “I think that I will.”

With that “baby step” in mind, I walked to my local college in downtown Toronto, to register for an online grammar course. This was one of the prerequisites for their writing certificate. As I walked, it started to rain heavily. I didn’t have my umbrella (I also had a bad kink in my neck from sleeping poorly the night before) and a TTC bus splashed me. Not that the splash mattered that much because I was already drenched. It did, however, feel like a slap in the face from the universe. “Is the rain a sign to go back home?” I wondered. I kept walking, though, and congratulated myself for being so uncharacteristically determined and persistent. “Remember, baby steps.”

At the registration office, I took a number and waited. I kept busy by trying to spot people waiting in line who looked to be over 19. The lack of older students made me want to flee. I bucked up, though, by reminding myself that Oprah would say, “You go girl!” I imagined, too, Dr. Phil would chime in with a hearty, “Why don’t you show those young whippersnappers a thing or two?” When the registration clerk finally called my number it felt like one of those “Eureka” life-changing moments.

“I want to register for the Writing-Grammatically-Online-Summer-Course-For-Writers-And-Editors,” I said. It was a mouthful. I’d said it quite emphatically too. I looked – perhaps too intensely? – into the young clerk’s brown eyes. But I figure you must be forceful when owning your Nike “Just Do It” moment.

“Yes Ma’am,” he replied. “You don’t have to shout. I can hear you.” I’d spoken too loudly in my enthusiasm. Or perhaps I still had water in my ears.

I took my registration receipt and walked home in the rain all the while wondering: What would it be like going back to school as a mature student? Especially online? I had attended college so long ago. “Don’t worry,” I reassured myself. “You can type. Whether you use all 10 fingers or 4 fingers like me – typing is typing. It all counts.”

After I got home, I dried myself off and made a cup of tea. I reread the write-up for the Writing-Grammatically-Online-Summer-Course-For-Writers-And-Editors in the calendar. The course promised to begin with sentence parts, move to an in-depth explanation of sentence structure, and culminate in a review of stylistic conventions. The write-up said it would do this in a fun, comprehensive, and easy-to-follow manner.

To be frank, the course sounded to me like the “orthopedic shoes” of the writing courses offered – not sexy at all. It was, however, a good starting point: a gateway to more exciting courses I might take in the fall, such as screenwriting. Yes, I wanted to try writing for the movies. Screenwriting – I closed my eyes and had a brief vision of me, wearing a low-cut red gown and accepting an Oscar. I had been seated in the front row beside Brad Pitt, who had starred in my hit movie, “Baby Steps.” It was the moving story of a woman’s journey from homemaker to professional screenwriter. Unfortunately, my husband had been relegated to the nosebleed section of the hall along with Angelina Jolie. I mentioned to Brad how I regretted that our spouses weren’t with us and we worried that when we thanked them publicly, the cameras might not be able to find them back there. We did this because we were nice people and fame hadn’t gotten to either one of us. I should add that in my fantasy, I had bleached, off-the-chart-white, almost chiclet-looking teeth.

When my husband came home from work later that evening, I didn’t mention the Oscar fantasy, but I did tell him all about my baby step.

“And after the Writing-Grammatically-Online-Summer-Course-For-Writers-And-Editors, the entire community college course calendar will be my oyster this fall,” I said over casserole.

I started the course the following Thursday morning. I made coffee and then powered up the computer. I’d asked my husband to make sure I could access the course before he headed off for work.

“I can’t believe I signed up for an online course,” I said. “I just feel so high-tech.” He looked at me with – love? amusement? pity? embarrassment? I don’t know. He’s hard to read a lot of the time. He’s a software engineer so I could safely assume one thing about the situation: he didn’t share my feeling that this was a technological challenge.

“It’s just nice to see you excited about something besides Oprah and Dr. Phil,” he said. “Frankly, it’s nice to see you up so early and out of your housecoat and slippers. You look so awake and pretty. Now, choose your secret PIN number,” he said, pointing to the screen. “Choose a word or name you will remember.”

“I’m typing in your name – C-E-S-A-R,” I said. I thought he would be flattered. I could have chosen anybody – any name or word – but I chose him.

“First of all, don’t even tell me. It’s a secret. And secondly, never choose the name of a family member, especially a spouse,” he said. “It’s too obvious. It’s not secure. That’s what the hackers will try first.” Maybe it’s because he writes code for a living, but to me he was being paranoid about “the hackers” and computer security. Were hackers really going to stop their nefarious activities on some other site in order to break into the Writing-Grammatically-Online-Summer-Course-For-Writers-And-Editors, thinking, “God, let me break into this woman’s grammar course. I really need to brush up on my complex sentences”?

Nevertheless, I typed in the name of someone I’d never met, but always imagined as the name of my secret lover: “E-D-U-A-R-D-O,” I typed.

Once I’d logged on and Cesar had left for work, I clicked on the message board and read the 23 introductions posted by the other online students. They all followed the same pattern. Using these introductions as a guide, I composed mine:
“Hi, I’m Judy. I’m a homemaker, work part-time teaching newcomers to Canada, am married, live in Toronto, and enjoy long walks and going to the movies in my spare time. I’m eager to get started with the grammar course and please ignore any grammar mistakes I’ve made thus far as I’m rusty at it. Good luck to all.” “Uh-oh,” I thought after I’d pressed send. “I said I was a homemaker and married. Is that redundant?” I wanted to make a good impression with my “cyber-classmates.”

I logged on to my course the following morning and found quite a few replies to my introduction, including a special “Welcome to the course Judy” from Dave, my online instructor. “Thanks Dave,” I wrote back. And that was the last that I heard from any of the students. What can I say? I mean, it’s grammar – it’s not exactly bonding. No, with grammar you go it alone – it’s every woman for herself.

Over the next month, I studied really hard. When I was younger and in college, I was an indifferent student. But now I wanted my money’s and time’s worth. I now understood and appreciated the value of these things more than I used to. My diligence was rewarded with perfect marks on the weekly quizzes. I couldn’t have been more disciplined if I were studying to take the Harvard Law School entrance exam.

“Who would have thought? Guess I’m just a natural grammarian,” I said to my husband.

I began to look forward to my Thursdays. I would take the weekly quiz in the morning and then begin studying the next unit that afternoon. I was very serious about it, not scheduling anything with friends or family, and getting out of as many chores as possible on Thursdays. Sometimes I would get so lost in my studies that we would have to order in. “Guess it’s Chinese again,” I would say. I would get out of all potential social obligations or household duties with a simple, “You know I dedicate my entire Thursday to grammar. And I need you to respect that.”

But, just as I was getting comfortable in my new Thursday routine, something happened. I don’t know quite how it happened, but it did. I stumbled. I lost my grammatical groove. I lost it bad. I started making a lot of mistakes on the practice assignments and quizzes. Part of this may have been from second-guessing myself on the quizzes. It may also have been because I was having trouble seeing. About one third of the way into the course, I noticed that the computer screen – the entire world actually – was quite fuzzy. I was squinting to distinguish colons from semi-colons, periods from commas – no small matter for an apprentice grammarian. I finally realized something was amiss one Thursday afternoon while studying my new grammar unit at Starbucks when the man with long, dark hair crouching close to the floor turned out to be a black Labrador retriever. I made an appointment with the optometrist that very day.

I had my new glasses by the following Thursday and was sure that once I could see clearly, I would also understand more clearly. But not so. I was still fuzzy about how to conjugate collective nouns – specifically anything with “flock.” Is some of the flock of geese landing on the lake; or are they? What about “the flock”? “a flock”? A flock of geese makes its nest in the field. Or so I thought. Perhaps the flock make their nest in that field? What if some of the flock nest – nests? – elsewhere?

After getting all of the “flock” questions wrong on my practice quiz I decided that it was time to e-mail Dave, my online instructor: “Hi Dave,” I wrote, “Can you please explain question #14? I selected ‘Some of the flock is wandering by itself.’ The correct answer is ‘Some of the flock are wandering by themselves.’ Please clarify.” He wrote the following back: “Collective nouns, such as flock, take a singular when acting as a single unit and plural when members are acting individually.” As I read it, I remembered studying it in the unit and it seemed so easy, so obvious. “Got it! Thanks Dave,” I replied.

That evening, I reviewed the flock grammar rules with Cesar. “Remember,” he said. “With ‘some’ you have to ask yourself whether the noun is count or non-count. For example, some of the geese have flown south, but some of the water has leaked.” He’d shown quite an interest in my grammar progress and because of this you could say that he’d informally audited the course. “Got it! Thanks Cesar,” I replied.

But had I? That’s the question I asked myself this morning as Cesar prepped me for the final exam. “When you get into the exam room, look it over to see how many sections there are. You need to calculate how many minutes to spend on each question. If you get stuck don’t go over the time allotted for that question. Leave it and come back. Aside from your flock issues, I feel that you’re ready.” I felt like Rocky Balboa before jumping into the ring.

“Aren’t you overreacting?” I asked. “I’m sure I’ll have time to complete the test. You can cover a lot of grammar questions in 3 hours”

“You should take my advice,” he said. “Everybody always thought I was so knowledgeable in school, but I really wasn’t. I was just an expert test taker.”

Before leaving for work, he handed me a piece of paper. Study this just before you start the exam,” he said.

Once in the exam room, I organized my pens, pencils, eraser, and water bottle on my desk and right before starting the exam read his note: It said, “Always ask yourself is the noun count or non-count. If you still get confused with a ‘flock’ question, try substituting ‘chickens’ for ‘sheep’ or ‘geese.’ I’m very proud of you. Good luck.”

I read the exam over. And there it was on the last page. The dreaded flock question. I averted my gaze. Every grammar rule I’d ever learned flashed before me in a blur. I realized then and there that reading over the exam in its entirety hadn’t been a good idea. But it was too late to undo the damage. When I saw what I had to complete in 3 hours, it felt overwhelming – akin to watching a movie of all I had left to do in my life. I started to perspire. I could feel my mind seize up – shut tight. I froze for a good 5 minutes, very aware that the 30 other test takers in the room were busy writing. I stared at the second hand of the enormous clock on the wall. “Pull it together,” I said to myself. “If you get stuck on a question, leave it and come back. If you get stuck on a question, leave it and come back.”

I decided to begin the exam with “baby steps” and completed a couple of the easy True/False questions. In this way, I managed to begin…and to continue…and to get through it.

With 5 minutes left, I’d completed all the questions and then decided to face the dreaded “flock” question. If I could get this question right, it would be a personal triumph.

“A flock of geese is or are landing on the water?” That was the question. I closed my eyes and pictured myself in a canoe, watching a flock of geese going in for the landing. It was like watching the Nature Channel. Would they be landing together? In my mind some were landing quickly, some slowly, some merely skimming the water. Does that classify as a landing? “Is that really a single unit?” I asked myself this crucial question.

I thought, too, of Cesar’s note and substituted chickens for geese. I watched in horror as the chickens coming in for a landing couldn’t fly very well and ended up sinking and drowning in the lake, clucking loudly, wings flapping. Count and non-count were in there somewhere. I was exhausted. And I was now thoroughly confused. I noticed that the sentence started with “A” so did that mean it must be automatically singular? I remembered, too, that Dave had said the collective noun was singular if they were acting as a single unit. But in my mind they had each landed (or drowned) in an individual way so my answer was plural. But, because I knew every instinct that I had had about the flock so far had been wrong, I went with the opposite of are and underlined is. Yes, I chose “A flock of geese is landing on the water.” That was my final answer.

I left the exam room, went outside, and phoned Cesar.

A Flock of Geese Is Flying in the sky,” I said.

“Yes, it is! That’s right,” he answered.

“No, really, I’m looking up and a flock of geese is actually flying in the sky,” I said. Outside of the exam room, it was just so painfully obvious.

Seeing geese flying south is like seeing the first maple leaf fall to the ground; it means that summer is over. I was looking forward to fall. I have always loved the colors of fall, the cooler temperatures, and bundling up in a cozy sweater. Now, I also had my exciting, sexy writing courses to look forward to. For a brief moment, I looked up at the flock of geese, and felt a kinship with them, all of us, be it singular or plural, on our own unwavering journey.

As I watched the geese disappear, I thought about how far I’d come from my “lost” days of spring when I’d walked down to register for the Writing-Grammatically-Online-Summer-Course-For-Writers-And-Editors. And this evening, as I raise my glass to the sky in a silent “Cheers” to any migrating geese, I reflect on how, despite my summer “flock block,” things had definitely begun to look up.

Published by Cahoots Magazine
May 31, 2009