Riding Comma Riding Comma

The Highwayman came riding comma riding comma riding comma

The Highwayman came riding comma up to the old inn door period

Sitting sideways on my twin bed, back literally against the wall, I follow along in a high school English text as my older sister stands in the doorway, declaiming.  The unusual recitation style is understandable given the rules of engagement for her next-day English quiz: write this poem, with full and correct punctuation, from memory.

The Highwayman came riding comma riding comma riding comma

The Highwayman came riding comma up to the old inn door period

Forty years later, I might be hard-pressed to recite any poetry I studied in high school, but these few lilting lines have stuck with me.  I wondered even then if my sister’s teacher (aka The Stickler) had any idea what behaviour she was provoking in her students with this examination style, what havoc she was wreaking (presumably unintentionally) with their capacity for poetry appreciation.  Since I have never had to write a poem from memory (with or without correct punctuation) to meet any of my own life challenges, I wonder now what the heck she was trying to teach them.   

Establish and maintain the aim: the first principle of war, my retired-from-the-military colleagues tell me.  The first principle of any activity, perhaps.

Back in the day, memorization would already have given those students the alphabet, spelling, multiplication tables, rules of algebraic operations, historical dates, and the names, capitals and exports of the Commonwealth countries.  Deliberately inflicting more practice in such a well cultivated skill seems superfluous, even for that day.

Maybe the hope was that forcing students to observe and replicate correct punctuation would improve their own writing.  If so, a case could be made for less inefficient methods.  Maybe the intended lesson had nothing to do with poetry or the English language—maybe it was an exercise in something more abstract, like attention to detail, or self-discipline.  If so, a case could be made for methods less susceptible to unintended consequences.

Or maybe there was no conscious pedagogical point.  For this teacher, maybe the poem’s story, imagery, cadence and punctuation were All One: an indivisible whole.

About the same time as the Highwayman was riding comma riding comma, another teacher was taking a markedly different approach to the ‘indivisibility’ issue.  Playing Mark Thackeray in To Sir With Love, Sidney Poitier enters the classroom one day to find the students sitting in seats other than those designated by his seating plan.  He tells them to take their ‘proper’ seats; they retort that they can sit wherever they want; he insists.  Reading his determination correctly, they clamber awkwardly and noisily over the desks, pushing and shoving each other, beaking off all the while.  Poitier stands impassively, ignoring their obnoxious behaviour as they settle into their assigned seats.  Beginning the day’s lesson without further comment, he settles in his turn for acquiescence to the bare minimum of classroom discipline: insisting only on the ‘what’, not the ‘how’.

Fast-forward several decades and an engineering manager is explaining how the company delivers consistent maintenance regimes across numerous remote sites: The workers respect what the managers inspect. I have an odd, off-balance moment of hearing the hoofbeat cadence of The Highwayman once again, and hope that the managers have chosen their inspection points wisely.

Returning to my own editorial responsibilities, I wonder uneasily what ‘aim’ I am modeling for writers and other editors as we work madly against tight deadlines to generate proposals that will win the work while protecting the company’s interests.  A business graduate, I understand that English correctness does not matter if the business solution is poor.  A marketer and writer, I long to go well beyond the merely correct, to make each response sing.  A competitor, I want to win every time, no matter how much work it takes.  A perfectionist, I want even hastily assembled documents to go out the door error-free in all facets.

I’d feel worse about my own failure to identify what matters and to stick to it, if I didn’t see it all around me.  The proposal team that started its life as the business equivalent of a group of undisciplined teenagers clambering over desks has morphed into clones of The Stickler, each member demanding that every proposal aspect be Just So.  Nor is there any help from on high: my bosses’ diverse demands mirror the jumble of my own impulses.  As work piles up and the deadline looms, people work harder, not smarter.

And as we speed up, we stop asking whether our solution makes sense—whether the client will be satisfied and whether we can deliver it, at a profit.  We even stop asking whether it is clearly explained.  But, by golly, we have standardized the colours in graphics, numbered every heading properly, corrected every grammatical error, fixed every typo.

The Highwayman came riding comma riding comma riding comma

The Highwayman came riding comma up to the old inn door period

Poetry and proposals couldn’t seem more different, yet they have this in common: they are not indivisible wholes.  Few of life’s activities are.  And when we treat things as indivisible, when we try to do it all, we risk not doing what matters.  Period.

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7 Comments

  1. Dear sister, I fear it was I who was subjecting you to that recitation and am amazed you’ve been able to find some valuable lesson in it. You’ve done better than I… having forgotten both the poem and the teacher! Thanks for reminding me to watch out for my tendency to pay attention to form over function.

  2. In the arts, is form function?

    (My partner John Benn who is oil painting en plein air (in the woods, year-round) says: There are rules but sometimes I try to see if they can be broken and still allow the painting to “work”. Tricky.)

  3. Isabel, you wondered about what “aim” you were modeling for the other writers and editors–it sounds like the aim was to live up to that old chestnut our mothers used to tell us–if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. It’s hard to do something well when all of the participants are tugging in different directions, a deadline is looming and there is no guiding vision, but we press on out of respect for our co-workers who are also (hopefully) trying to do their best. Sometimes it magically comes together at the 11th hour and other times it’s a glorious mess and we put it away and start fresh the next day.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      I think you’ve hit the nub – the challenge lies in leadership, as it so often does. Having a clear idea of what matters – and being willing to manage effort within those parameters – is a rare quality. In the absence of such clarity and discipline, that ‘do it well’ impulse becomes almost self-destructive.

  4. Carla

    Not sure how I missed this one Isabel, but glad I came back to it! I think my Santa cartoon might be a suitable graphic for this post, non? I have a new mantra – ‘Death to the Highwayman!!’. Thanks, as usual, for the wise words.

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