We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.
For better or worse, all of my high school English teachers were memorable. Each held a precise, but completely unique, image of the perfectly crafted essay; therefore, every September I found myself adopting a brand new writing style. A paper that would have garnered an “A” at the end of one school year routinely received a “C-minus“ at the beginning of the next. For the next few months, then, I would master the new approach only to have it discarded and replaced again the following year. It was frustrating but I eventually discovered that my teachers were less cranky when I turned in work that was grammatically correct, unambiguous, and tightly crafted. That seemed to please each one of them.
As I labored over my editing, I wondered if my teachers were just as intense and unforgiving in their private lives. Did they keep a red pencil handy whenever they read a newspaper or magazine? Did they feel the urge to pick up the telephone whenever a radio announcer split an infinitive or a news anchor ended a sentence with a preposition? I suspected that that they were always on-duty even though I could not be certain.
Recently, my question was answered. One of my patients, who himself is a writer, shared a story about a retired high school English teacher to whom he was related. The old man had been a stickler both in and out of the classroom and his family was expected to treat the English language with respect, even in casual conversation.
The teacher had lived a long and productive life. As his death drew near, he was admitted to a hospice, and he was now spending his final days in bed, too weak to turn side-to-side.
Near the end, one of the nurses came to check on him. “Mr. Cooper,” she said, “you look uncomfortable. Would you like to lay on your other side for a while?”
Mr. Cooper groaned. He opened an eye just wide enough to peer at her. “It’s ‘lie,'" he whispered. “You must say, ’Would you like to 'lie' on your other side?’” The effort overwhelmed him and he closed his eye again.
The teacher’s calling, apparently, never ends. The family swears that those were his very last words.