He wanted me to go to comma camp. That’s how bad it was. He was inventing a grammar camp and he was inviting me to it. And he was telling the whole class.
It was horrible.
I was a junior in high school, a good student. I turned in my first paper with confidence, ready to impress this great teacher I’d heard so much about. His name was Brother James Kelly. He was the president of my high school, but he always taught one section of junior English. He was tough, but good. I was going to wow him.
Maybe he was impressed by just how bad my comma usage was. That was my only chance.
We never had that comma camp, but the message got through anyway. I became obsessed with grammar, I worked hard to become a good writer – a real good writer and not the one I thought I was. By the time that year was over, I was on a writing path that eventually brought me here.
Thanks, Br. Kelly. Your comma camp threat started it all.
I’m writing about Br. Kelly now because he passed away over the weekend after a battle with prostate cancer. I’m writing about him in these pages not because of any sports connection – he wasn’t really a fan – but because, as a teacher, he was like so many of the great coaches I see every day.
He cared a lot, and he also demanded a lot.
We read roughly a book a month, and for every book, we turned in a critical essay. We chose a topic, laid out a thesis statement and set out to prove the point. They were the most difficult papers I had ever written, largely because you knew who you were handing them in to.
And we weren’t just handing in papers. We handed in blank audio tapes. When the paper came back, so did the tape. Br. Kelly felt he could give better criticism by talking to you on tape.
There were some harrowing moments listening to those. I thought the comma talk was bad; the criticism of my first essay was brutal.
But it worked. It always worked.
I don’t know that I had ever really worried about progressing in a class. I usually started at a pretty solid spot and maintained it for the rest of the school year.
But in Br. Kelly’s class, I got better, significantly better, every step of the way. Br. Kelly didn’t give A-pluses but my last paper was an A with shades of A-plus. It was like winning a championship.
I didn’t realize how important it would be at the time, but the man had taught me how to write. I’d always been pretty good at it, but I had never been challenged. I knew grammar but I didn’t put it into practice. I made my points but I didn’t try too hard to get it just right. I didn’t even recognize what good writing was.
But Br. Kelly flipped a switch. He’s the reason I’m a writer.
It was sad to hear the news that he had passed away – he was too young and he had a lot more students to scare straight – but I immediately thought of the connection to coaches.
I never had that great coach. My athletic career ended in Little League. But when it came to the teaching and the life lessons that often happen on a field or a court, Br. Kelly had me covered. It all stuck.
I see the same lessons being passed along now, as I watch games and swing by practices. Coaches, especially the great ones, can make such a difference. They never quite know the impact they have. If you haven’t thanked your coach lately, do it. They challenge and they expect a lot, but they care. And everyone is better for it.
So thanks to the coaches, and thanks, Br. Kelly.
I hope all my commas are in the right place.
William Geoghegan is the sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100 and firstname.lastname@example.org.