When I was 11 years old, every Friday my dad made me write a personal letter to a woman he hardly knew. The woman’s name was Miss Miller, and she was my sixth-grade teacher at St. Mark Catholic Grade School. I don’t remember if it was her idea or his idea. All I remember is that after she called him on the phone a few times to complain about my behavior in class, they developed a scheme in which I was forced to write the following letter on a blank sheet of paper every week:
Dear Miss Miller,
How did I do this week?
I was required to hand-deliver my letter to Miss Miller every Friday morning. She always returned it to me on Friday afternoon with her handwritten response. Each Friday evening, when my dad came home from work, I was required to hand him the note so he could review it and determine whether any action needed to be taken on his part.
While I did not like the idea of giving my teacher an opportunity to report to my dad every Friday, it was a creative and clever way for my dad to monitor my behavior on a regular basis and to force me to think twice before I misbehaved in school.
My best guess is that Miss Miller was in her early forties when I was in her sixth-grade class. She was smart, single, independent, disciplined, focused, and always in control. She had an extensive rock collection, and she would periodically bring different rocks from her collection to class for us to see and examine. Whenever she brought one of her rocks to class, she would explain where the rock came from and how she acquired it.
Miss Miller insisted that everyone in her class behave and adhere to her rules. There was one boy — Dennis — who was stupid enough to sometimes push Miss Miller to her limits. It was clear to most of the students that Miss Miller never wanted to be perceived as being out of control. She knew that if she allowed one student to get away with too much, the other students would assume that it was okay for them to also go too far, which would eventually cause chaos in her classroom and a loss of respect for her.
On one occasion, Dennis was acting up and pushed Miss Miller to the point where she ordered him to leave the classroom. When he refused to leave, she raised her voice and again ordered him to leave the classroom. He again refused, so she threatened him. He started arguing with her and yelled the F-word at her with the word “you” after it.
Back then, while there were a handful of crude boys who would periodically say the word, it was never said to or in the presence of a teacher.
After Dennis yelled out the expletive to Miss Miller, there was dead silence in the classroom. After realizing what he had done, Dennis began walking swiftly toward the door to leave the classroom. As he was heading toward the door, he rushed by Gary Zimney’s desk. Gary was the toughest guy in our class. He was tall, quick, and strong. Every guy in class knew that if they ever challenged him, he would swiftly inflict enough pain on them to teach them a lesson they would never forget.
When Dennis rushed by Gary’s desk, Gary jumped up and swung his arm around Dennis’s neck and put him in a headlock. As he held his locked arm around Dennis’s neck, Gary walked toward Miss Miller. For the students who were facing Gary, all they could see was the top of Dennis’s head. For the students who were behind Gary, what they saw was the back of Dennis’s legs with his butt sticking up in the air. He was bent over with his stomach parallel to the floor because his head was locked into place under Gary’s right armpit.
There was no way that Dennis could have pulled his head out from where it was. Everyone in class was stunned by what was happening. We just sat at our desks and silently watched what was occurring.
Miss Miller didn’t say a word. She continued to stand up straight, with her customary perfect posture and watched as Gary walked toward her, pulling Dennis along with him. When Gary got to where Miss Miller was standing, he stopped and looked down at the back of Dennis’s head. He barked out an order to Dennis: “Tell her you’re sorry.” When Dennis didn’t say anything, Gary raised his voice: “I said, tell her you’re sorry!”
At that point, Dennis whimpered, “I’m sorry.” Gary raised his voice again and said, “SAY IT LOUDER.” Dennis obeyed him and repeated his apology loud enough so everyone in class could hear him. Gary then turned and threw Dennis in the direction of the doorway and yelled, “NOW GET OUT OF HERE.” Dennis’s body lunged forward and he stumbled and fell to his knees. He then quickly got up and ran out of the classroom.
Gary walked back to his desk and sat down, and Miss Miller calmly returned to the topic that she had been discussing before Dennis started causing trouble. She acted as though nothing had happened.
Dennis didn’t show up for class for a couple of days. When he returned, he behaved like an angel. He didn’t cause any trouble in class for the remainder of the school year.
A few days after the Gary forced Dennis to apologize to Miss Miller, I told my mom and my younger brothers and sisters what had happened, while we were all in the car and my mom was driving us somewhere. After I told them what happened, Mom calmly asked if anyone else cussed or used bad language at St. Mark’s. Her question opened up a discussion about two brothers who rode the bus with us to school every day who would use bad language when they argued and fought with each other.
I expected my mom to give us a lecture about how it was wrong and sinful to use bad language, but after she asked a few more questions and listened to our responses, she said, I feel sorry for people who cuss and say bad words.
I was surprised by my mom’s comment. It was not the reaction that I had expected from her. After she made the comment, she waited until one of us asked her why she felt sorry for people who cussed. She explained to us that the primary reason people cuss and say bad words is because they have a very limited vocabulary. She said that if people who use foul language were smarter, they would have the right words to express their frustration and anger, and they would not have to resort to using bad language to get their point across. She added that any stupid person can cuss, but only intelligent people who have wide-ranging vocabularies have the ability to appropriately express how they feel about someone or something.
I thought about my experience in Miss Miller’s class and my mom’s lesson when I saw a message posted on Facebook that included the F-word. The message was posted last week by one of my college-educated nieces who has a master’s degree and works as a professional. She was angry about the chaos that had occurred in the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, after President Trump spoke at a local rally.
My niece who is married and has young children of her own has posted messages in the past that have included the same foul language. Unfortunately, she has a lot of company on Facebook and other social media websites where people routinely post messages that include the F-word and other curse words. Some of those people include relatives of mine. Do all those people possess limited vocabularies and are they too stupid to think of the right words to adequately express their emotions, or do they think that they are hip and modern when they “fit in” by proudly using crass, foul language?
It has been more than 50 years since my dad forced me to write weekly letters to Miss Miller and my mom taught me and my younger brothers and sisters a valuable lesson about the use of foul language. The fact that my memory was triggered by my niece’s inappropriate use of what was once a forbidden expletive gave me the opportunity to thank God for parents who were wise enough to come up with clever ways that they could use to teach and influence their children to do and say the right things.
We are living in a society and culture where many of our young adults lack the wisdom and virtue that some of us older people have always taken for granted. I am grateful that I grew up in an environment that placed a high value on prayer, virtue, self-discipline, self-denial, and prudence.
While I did not grow up in a perfect home with perfect parents — Mary and Joseph were the only perfect parents who ever lived — I did grow up in a home that had faith-filled, devout Catholic parents who weren’t afraid of holding their children accountable for their behavior. And because they were devout Catholics who took their faith and the teachings of the church seriously, they were conduits that were used by God to transfer His grace to their children.
In the world in which we live, where temptation and evil is freely disseminated to our children and grandchildren through their handheld devices, the shows they watch, and the people they interact with, it is impossible to raise children to become virtuous adults without the benefit of God’s grace and protection.
While you and I do not possess the power or ability to change the world, we can contribute to the change that we desire by leading prayerful, pure, holy lives, while we do our best to influence and guide one soul at a time, beginning with our own children and grandchildren.