Being aggressive about passive (or: John O’Neill owes me one)

So over the weekend, I received a Twitter message. Someone spotted this, and knew that as a graduate of Hamilton College, I should read this.

And I did.

Hoo boy.

Speaking actively, it’s “I received the package.” Passive is “The package was received by me.”

So what does the Hamilton website list as an example of the passive voice?

Oops.

Look, I get it. There are grammar police out there, and they’ll catch mistakes and let the writers know of them. Most times you just correct the mistake and move on.

But let’s go back to the source. Hamilton College. The home of such literary scions as Ezra Pound. To graduate from Hamilton is a rigorous challenge, and you need to improve your skills every single day.

Which brings me to the story of my first-ever college essay, and my first English professor at Hamilton, John O’Neill. This is 1981 – actually, it’s the summer of 1981, as several students attended what was known as the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), in order to achieve some sort of head start in college. We took classes in literature and philosophy, in science and in public speaking.

So I’m working on my term paper, I don’t really remember the subject of the term paper, but I did try to sound like I had some reasonable semblance of what a college essay should resemble.

We handed in our essays. And the next day, Professor O’Neill critiqued each and every one of us – in class – about the contents of our essays. Some were too wordy. Some were too brief. One of them was written in a longhand script that descended from pharmacists.

I’m listing to all the criticism, and I’m noticing that my paper hasn’t been publicly critiqued or ridiculed. Wow. Maybe I made it through. All right, first term paper down, four years to go, I can handle this –

“And now I’ve saved the best … for last.”

Uh oh. That didn’t sound like a congratulatory exclamation.

“In the first sentence, mind you, Mr. Miller has written, ‘Usually these events get off to an unusual start.'”

O’Neill looked at me as if I had confused the works of William Faulkner with the works of Carolyn Keene.

“Mr. Miller, if the events are unusual, that means that they do not follow a typical path. So why would that be a usual occurrence? And if so, if you are suggesting that we expect the unexpected, how can it be unexpected if we’re expecting it? Young man, in your first essay – in your first sentence – you have completely destroyed the concept of the English language.”

He may have been half-joking, or possibly three-quarters projecting, but still …

At that moment, I felt like going back to my dorm room, packing up my belongings, and thumbing a ride back to Albany. Ugh.

I get this. This is the college tactic of starting a student off with a mediocre grade, finding the deepest flaws in a term paper or in a thesis, so that the student will break through and improve from that point. Today I get this. 18-year-old me in the middle of Central New York for the first time didn’t get it.

But I kept at things. I worked hard, I took as many English and Literature and Creative Writing classes as possible. And in 1985, I had that B.A in Creative Writing, as well as a diploma and a wooden cane in my graduation collection.

Now about five years ago, at my 30th college reunion, I actually ran into John O’Neill at one of the alumni mixers. Granted, he must have gone through 50 years of students over time. For all I know, I was just one face in a phalanx of undergraduates.

We met, he asked what I had been doing since graduation, I talked about the freelance writing and the books I’ve written, and the blog that I’m currently writing.

And somewhere along the conversation, I sensed he remembered something.

“Wait,” he said to me. “You’re the student who … yes, you’re the one who started an essay with ‘Usually these events get off to an unusual start,’ that was you, wasn’t it?”

My face turned scarlet with embarrassment. “Yes, Professor O’Neill, that was me.”

“I should tell you,” he smiled, “there have been other students who have submitted papers with that kind of grammatic inconsistency. But you were the first. And I always used your example to help others improve on their work.”

Thanks …. I guess?

Oh, well. At least I still graduated, and I’m still writing. Heck, the blog’s not called “Chuck the Longshoreman,” is it?

Not that I’m being too passive about this.

But what can I say? Ususally these blog posts about the passive voice get off to an unusually active voice.

So be it. 😀