I dodged a bullet that September day over lunch with my former high school English teacher, Peggy Ferrell. Some of you have read about her already in my memoir, and others of you are fortunate to know her personally. She was and still is a stickler for grammatical detail. She had and still has a mind like a steel trap. She did and still does speak with a letter-clear precision that if translated to a manuscript would be letter-perfect and error free.
Peggy Ferrell is also kind, considerate, and interested in her estimated 5,000 former English students who still adore and admire her. She can tell you the names of the spouses of many of those students, and she keeps in tune with the lives of many of them.
One of the reasons Ellen and I wanted to have lunch with her last week is that she read my memoir, Cold Turkey at Nine: The Memoir of a Problem Child, start to finish within days after she received a copy. On June 27, 2013, she sent me the following email, shortened a bit:
Just a few minutes ago I finished your book. None of my scheduled work today got accomplished. (One of the pleasures of retirement is doing what you wish when you wish; but I do try to maintain a bit of self-discipline most of the time.)
I thoroughly enjoyed your writing style. I did keep wanting to admonish you for being so rough on yourself. I am sure that knowing so many of the local people was an added attraction . . . .
Your visit to Scotland was very moving for me. Perhaps you do not know that my maiden name is Stewart, the Scots-Irish line. Do you know the political history between Stewart and Stuart?
Also, I remember the day Ray [her husband, who had a lot of farm dealings with my father] came in and told me about your mother’s death. He was in complete disbelief.
In summary: JOB WELL DONE!
This note from a beloved teacher meant a great deal to me. But I wondered, did she see any errors in the book?
Well, we found out over lunch as we got settled into our meal. Mrs. Ferrell—I still can’t bring myself to call her Peggy when I address her directly—looked up over a spoonful of soup and said, “E. B., I found one error in your book.”
She looked a bit puzzled as I raised both arms in the air and said, “Hooray! I was afraid you would find fifty!”
She explained where the error is and what it is. It’s toward the end of the book. I had used a misplaced modifying phrase involving adjective-adverb confusion.
This was such a huge relief. I asked her to show me in a copy of the book in the car after lunch exactly where the error is and how I should have written it. When she showed me, the error was obvious; it didn’t read right. I promised her that if I ever issue a second edition of my book that I would correct that error.
So I dodged a bullet when Peggy Ferrell told me she found only one error in my memoir. That was a big confidence boost for me. Other professional editors had missed it.
I was grateful to Mrs. Ferrell in high school for the remarkable way she taught English. And I have been grateful to her ever since—to this very day. I will always be grateful to her.