Sticklers for Detail

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Teachers can be sticklers for detail and the reason for it, or value of it, isn't always apparent to their students. Steve Hettleman says its not just for the sake of being fussy.

A few years ago, Joey kept using the words 'since' and 'because' to mean the same thing in his writing. Because I want my students to use words with precision, I pointed out that even though I knew what he was saying, he was using the words incorrectly. After our third discussion, as Joey was leaving the classroom, he turned to me and said, "Hey, Mr. H, what's the big deal? It's not as if my life depends on it."

I thought of Mark Twain who once said, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. It's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." But I just smiled, and Joey exited.

I've thought about that conversation over the years. I've corrected countless other students who make similar mistakes. I ask students to put periods inside closing quotation marks. I remind them that book titles should be italicized. But their lives don't depend on it. Maybe I'm wasting my time; maybe I'm focusing on things that don't matter.

Many years from now I want the medical advice I receive to be accurate. I want the literature I read then to be profound, for the self-driving cars that shuttle me around to be safe. When I'm old and retired, I don't want something that's close to right. I want the lightning, not the lightning bug. And it's Joey and his classmates who are going to be my doctors and writers and engineers. And yours too, maybe.


As I near 50, I've come to see the classroom as a sacred and timeless compact between generations. I want with all my heart to help my students discover their passions and become experts in whatever field they want to pursue because I think that's the first step to fulfilling lives. So I teach for them. But I also know that when my friends and I are old and no longer capable of doing everything for ourselves, we will need the next generation to help us. So I also, selfishly, teach for myself. Each generation teaches selflessly and selfishly. It's how we'll all get where we're all going.

Since that day, I've thought about what I would say to Joey now instead of just smiling at him, and here's where I've landed. You're right, Joey. Your life doesn't depend on it. But please use the right word anyhow. Because mine might.

With a Perspective, I'm Steve Hettleman.

Steve Hettleman teaches English at Redwood High School in Larkspur.