07/26/2013 05:17 pm ET Updated Sep 25, 2013

Mrs. Jones, Coaches, and Grandma

I would like to tell you why I dedicated my most recent book, The Big Ten of Grammar, "To Mrs. Jones and to all of the other teachers on various levels of education who have gone beyond the call of duty in helping struggling students to understand and achieve but who seldom get appropriately thanked or recognized for their extra time and effort."

When I graduated from high school and entered the University of Missouri as a freshman, one of the required courses was English 101. It soon became obvious to the instructor that I did not know the basic parts of speech and had a very limited understanding of English grammar. During the second week of the semester, the instructor -- as I remember, her name was Mrs. Jones -- asked me to stay after class to talk with her.

In those days, the instructors were very formal in addressing students, and I still remember her saying, "Mr. Bradshaw, you do not belong in this class." At first I did not understand the
implications of her comment. I responded, "I think this is the right class, Mrs. Jones. This is English 101, isn't it?" She responded, "Yes, this is English 101, and every freshman must take the class and make a passing grade in it."

She went on to explain that, in her judgment, I was not adequately prepared for the class and suggested I withdraw. She was a kind woman and thought she was doing me a favor. She was trying to help me understand that, based on her experience as a university instructor, she was firmly convinced I would fail English 101, a required course. Hence, it would be better for me to withdraw from the university and go home at the beginning of the semester rather than be embarrassed by flunking out at the end of the semester.

Once I understood what she really meant, I explained that there was one really big problem: "Even if I did agree with you, Mrs. Jones, my father would never stand for it, and let me tell you, one just doesn't disagree with that man. What he says goes! You and I, Mrs. Jones, have to figure out some way for me to stay at the university." With that, she suggested that, if I were willing, she would tutor me twice a week. Needless to say, I was willing. I spent endless hours working with her and doing literally hundreds of exercises in grammar that she had me struggle with on my own.

She did not give many small quizzes. Grades for the semester primarily depended on class participation and the grade on the final exam. You can well imagine the pressure students felt as the semester drew to a close.

The final exam consisted of 50 sentences. The instructions were simple: "Correct any errors you find in the sentences." I was the last person to hand in my exam. I stayed until the very end of the test period. I tried and tried to find more errors, but I ended up making only one minor change in one of the 50 sentences. I could find no revisions to make in the other 49. I was certain I had failed the exam.

Actually, all 50 of the sentences as they appeared on the exam were correct, and I made, by far, the highest grade in the class. Her 50 sentences were long and complex, involving some of the most difficult sentence structures and uses of grammar that one could possibly imagine. I had learned the correct rules of grammar for almost every conceivable situation and proved that I knew how to apply them under pressure.

She was the start of my becoming a scholar. Competent professors and teachers can make such a difference in the lives of their students. Coaches can, too.

A few years ago there was a survey taken of freshman on college campuses. One of the questions asked was who in their lives has the most influence on their thinking. A substantial majority answered, "My coach."

Many, many coaches deserve to be included in the dedication I wrote to Mrs. Jones and her colleagues. Unfortunately, we hear primarily about the coaches from major universities and large high schools, those coaches who are remembered more for winning than for being a good influence. But I have heard so many stories from students of little known educational institutions about how their coaches taught them about setting life-long goals and the value of working to accomplish those goals, about the importance of moral values, about honesty and dignity and self-respect and respect for others.

Too many times we think of only "athletic" coaches. But there are debate coaches, drama coaches, art coaches, music coaches, chess club coaches, and on the list goes. Competent teachers and coaches, who genuinely care about the welfare and future of their students, are to be respected and applauded.

Another question in that survey asked whom they respected the most. By far, their answer was, "My grandparents." It's not that they relied on them more than anyone else; the answer to that question was their parents. But they "respected" their grandparents even more than their own parents. I have often wondered why that is.

Perhaps the answer comes from my personal experience. One time I sassed my grandmother. She immediately took me into the bathroom and washed my mouth out with a bar soap. I never sassed her again. I always loved and respected her because she demanded that I treat her with respect.

Mrs. Jones didn't make it easy for me. She required much of me. And I respected her because she demanding my coming up to her standards rather than excusing me for my standards of meritocracy. To me, that's the real key to success: someone requiring your respect -- and your respect for yourself.

Now you know why I dedicated my book to Mrs. Jones and her worthy colleagues. Many of us might learn from her.