Opinion Latest

Got comma issues? I can help with that

Got comma issues? I can help with that

I really don’t like telling people that I teach English for a living. 

Maybe it’s different for you, but my experience has been that when I tell people what I do, it changes the way they treat me, and the way they talk to me and what they expect from me. 

Invariably, when I tell people I am an English teacher, they’ll say, “Well, I guess I better watch what I say around YOU!”

Suddenly, the budding relationship between us has subtly shifted. The world is suddenly a classroom and they are now defensive pupils, self-conscious and not fully prepared for the conversation we are having. Very likely, this is a sub-conscious spasm of guilt for not having read “The Red Badge of Courage” in the eighth grade, but relying on the Cliffs Notes instead to eke out a “C” on their term paper.

Whatever it is, suddenly I am cast as the scold, the hall monitor, the custodian of sentence fragments and subject/verb agreement. Do people really believe that I am silently evaluating their dialogue, secretly assigning grades in my little mental gradebook, marking their errors in indelible red ink on the blackboard of my own mind?

“Oh, don’t you worry at all,” I’ll say. “I’m off the clock.”

Related Items

Fairly often, when people find out I teach English, they see it as an invitation to make use of my services, as if I might appreciate the opportunity to get some extra practice doing what I do.

“My niece is taking this course called anatomy and something-or-other over at the college and has been busting her tail on a 15-page research paper on placenta,” they’ll say. “But she hates writing, thinks it’s stupid. Would you mind looking it over and giving her some tips?”

It’s not that I have any grudge against the niece, nor any objection to placenta per se. Some of my favorite people were formed in it. Even so, I would rather cut and stack a cord of wood than read one paragraph of that paper.

So, I do the honorable thing and lie about needing gall bladder surgery, while also recommending the “absolutely tremendous” tutoring program over at the college.

`When people find out I am also a writer in addition to being an English teacher, things can get even weirder.

I have had people ask me on several occasions to proofread books that they have written, some of them hundreds of pages long, hundreds of handwritten pages that were not entirely legible. For all I know, it could have been the great American novel. Or it could have been a book about placentae.

Several others have asked me to write their books for them. One woman told me that she would be willing to just tell me stories about her family and I could just write them down. Sounds like a lot, but I will perhaps never forgive myself for not doing that very thing with my own grandparents.

Perhaps I am just being unrealistic or unfair. For all I know, this kind of thing may be much more common than I realize. Maybe if you are a doctor, for example, you are accustomed to being asked to “have a look at this place on my back” the first time you meet someone?

Maybe if you’re a lumberjack, some person you just met at party will ask you if you mind popping over in the morning to fell a diseased oak?

If you’re an accountant, you may very well meet people regularly who ask for help filing their taxes within minutes of making your acquaintance.

I am not necessarily against moving toward a more transactional social compact, especially since I am not usually offered anything for whatever services have been requested of me.

Perhaps some kind of barter system would work. If you’re a massage therapist, I will proofread your letter to the editor in exchange for 30 minutes of deep tissue massage. Yeah, that could work.

On the other hand, I tried a variation of this recently with my neighbor, who not only let us use his truck, but helped us move a washer and dryer that we bought from some friends.

“Look, Steve,” I said. “If you ever get into a tough spot with a dangling participle or need any help sorting out indefinite pronouns, please give me a call.”

“Appreciate it,” he said. “I think I’m OK with that stuff, but I have been thinking about this idea I had for a book, a kind of genealogy of my family going back to the seventeenth century. Of course, I’m no writer.”

“I’d love to help, Steve, really I would, but this situation with my gall bladder …”

(Chris Cox is a teacher and writer who lives in Haywood County. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.