The Passing Of An Influential College English Instructor


If you’re a longtime resident of the San Jose City College neighborhood, it’s not hard to wonder at what sporting event was being held at the stadium. The bright lights illuminates the overcast night, the loud speakers reverberates the cold air. A quick Internet search often reveals what’s going on. But it sometimes doesn’t. While browsing the campus newspaper, City College Times, I learned that an influential English instructor had passed away earlier this year.

After dropping out of high school in the ninth grade and working with my father in construction for several years after I turned eighteen, I went back to school to avoid being a construction worker for the rest of my life. The adult program at the local high school refused to take me as a student. With my college-level reading skill and everything else at the fifth grade level, it would take five years to get a high school diploma. They sent me to the Adult Re-Entry Program at SJCC, where I got my two-year associate degree without a high school diploma in four years.

Ms. Kathleen Colligan was my instructor for English 092, “Introduction to English,” in Fall 1992, which was my first full semester after taking a Saturday class each semester for the previous school year. Like everyone else in that class, English wasn’t my strong suit and I sucked at grammar. Less than two weeks into the semester, she offered extra help on grammar for anyone interested in coming in on a Saturday morning.

Four of us showed up that morning. Ms. Colligan wrote a sentence on the blackboard and asked us why we thought the sentence was grammatically correct. I raised my hand with hesitation, and, when she pointed to me, I said: “It felt right.”

For most English instructors, writing by instinct is pure heresy. You need to know the rules of grammar, be able to dissect a sentence into discrete components, and correctly identify each of those components by name. In short, you had to be a grammar Nazi. If you didn’t know your grammar, you couldn’t be a writer. This frustrated me to no end over the years. A dark art that would prevent me from ever becoming a successful writer.

Ms. Colligan asked me why I felt the sentence was correct. I explained that I have read extensively—about 800 books during my teenage years—to know that the sentence “felt” correct even though I didn’t know “why” it was correct. From there she guided us into learning why the sentence was grammatically correct without penalizing us for not knowing.

That became the first of many lessons I learned that particular semester. Twenty years later I have 30+ short stories in print, wrote numerous blog posts and published my own ebooks. I’m still feeling my way through grammar, but I know enough to know when the grammar checker in Microsoft Word is being wrong and sometimes inconsistent.