Ostomy Memories of Sixth Grade


Every once in a while, I pull down my copy of that ancient bible of good writing The Elements of Style by Strunk & White, a somewhat frail paperback edition published in 1959. To me, the little book’s Rule 13 says it all: “Omit needless words.”
Prof. Strunk’s concise essay on the principal requirements of plain English was copyrighted in 1918. The essayist E. B. White, a friend and contemporary of James Thurber when they slaved away at the “New Yorker” back in the Thirties, had been a student of Strunk’s at Cornell. He revised and updated the text and added a chapter on style.
All this brings to mind old Mrs. Gandersnoot, my sixth-grade teacher. She was a Grammar Nazi, wielding her inflexible requirements over our little cow-licked heads like a steel ruler. I am grateful for her strictness today but, at the time, she could seem a little harsh to a twelve-year- old boy daydreaming about less restrictive activity.
Mrs. Gandersnoot hated the word WHICH. To her mind, it was almost always an unnecessary word, a word utilized by weak and undisciplined writers. She must have been a student of Prof. Strunk or, if not a direct disciple, at least a descendent. Don’t use the word, she would dictate; eliminate it; break your sentence down; use two sentences if you must, but forget the word which, it is sloppy and tends to be an enemy of conciseness.
I’ll never forget the day that I got in trouble in Mrs. Gandersnoot’s classroom. We had all just handed in our homework assignment, a short essay on why the Friday paper drive was an important activity. She set us to reading the next chapter of our English workbook while she sat at her desk at the front of the room reading and grading our essays. I could see that she had her red pencil in hand, whipping it across the lined pages of our work like a stiletto. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw me say something to the kid next to me.


“Yes, Ma’am.” I was sure my Adam’s apple was throbbing in tumult.

“What did you say?” Her soft blue eyes glinted through her steel-rimmed spectacles.


“You heard me. What did you say to Timmy just now? Come on, speak up so that we can all hear you.”

She had used this tactic on students in the past and I knew that I was had. There was no way I could escape. This would not be over until I announced to her and the rest of the class what had been my sotto voce comment to Timmy. I gathered my nerve, swallowed hard, and took my medicine.

“I said… ‘She’s on a WHICH hunt.’ “

Hello HenryM.

I do like your posts for so many different reasons, but most of all they transport me back through memories to things I might otherwise have forgotten altogether.

Having never had a proper basic education, I did not experience any pedantic dictates about issues involving the English language. It was only after I left school that my education began, and I needed to express myself in ways that were at least acceptable to those who might possibly read my work.

Anyway! - back to the point about the use of 'WHICH'.
It was when I was working with emotionally unstable people that I developed a technique of helping people to communicate with themselves, that was labelled 'Constructive Conversations'.
The idea was, that conversations are primarily based on questions and answers.

It is well known in psychological circles, that in order to ask a question, the questioner will already have formulated their own answer. If this be the case, the theory goes, that if people ask their own questions, then they will already know the answers.

All I needed to do, was to find some way to educe (draw-out) those answers and document them in the form of  ‘Constructive Conversations’.
The technique was to list all the available questions (including some I made up to complete a rational ‘set’), and then get the conversationalists to choose each question in turn according to its hierarchical relevance to them. Having asked the question, they would then begin to list their answers to their own questions.
I did not wish to ‘influence’ them in any biased way so, I allowed myself just one question and that was :  “WHICH question is most relevant to you at this point?”
So that I was definitely not verbally part of the conversation, this question was written on the blackboard alongside the list of questions (what, who when, where, etc.) and simply pointed to each time the subject seemed at a loss as to how to proceed.

Thus, for many years, the only question anyone witnessed me addressing was the one beginning with ‘WHICH’. This gave rise to much banter and humour that led to my title of ‘The first which doctor’.

Enjoy the rhyme:

Best wishes


It was the year of ninety three
this title was bestowed on me
for all the work I undertook
to write my thesis and my book.

The title was, of course a pun
for all the work that I had done
to help people elucidate
their thoughts, and thus communicate.

After many contemplations
I believed that conversations
could be done productively,
if they were done constructively.

So, I developed a technique,
which, at that time was quite unique
in that it asked the people to
ask questions from ‘their’ point of view.

The questions listed, numbered nine,
and everyone thought they were fine
for building conversations from
and sorting out their mind’s maelstrom.

Thus, to keep the process flowing
and the conversations growing,
I felt the subjects should be free
from any influence from me.

So, what I did was set a task,
Where just one question I would ask:---
“‘WHICH’ question was it, they would see
as relevant to their story?”

The ‘which’ question became a joke
for all those academic folk,
so, when I got my doctorate,
‘The first WHICH’ seemed appropriate.

                                               B. Withers 1993

Oh Henry!

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Great line, Henry... but what did she say to that... and what was the look on her face like... before she sent you into the corner.



<p>Even an elementary school teacher can appeciate a bon mot on occasion.<br /><br /></p>
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