Benedict J. Iacovetti
On Grammar, Nuns and “Going Forth”
It took many years to appreciate the significance of what happened early in 1970 at the St. Joseph Parochial School in Ambler PA, but it has remained with me, even to this day. At the time, it was complete devastation and humiliation, and a realization that the world would demand much from me. Or at least, that the nun who taught us in eighth grade would demand that we learn English grammar!
As a decidedly homogeneous group of students with a common upbringing and working class roots, we were not Shakespearean scholars. The English language was foreign to us. Difficult to master and complicated beyond comprehension. Too many irregularities, too many vocabulary words, and too many fussy rules for anyone to ever master. Sort of like professional football, but without the violence.
Our seventh and eighth teacher, Sister Edward Anthony (by the way, always be fearful of any nun with two masculine names), was not impressed with the casualness of our communications- both written and oral. She took it upon herself to impress the importance of proper grammar in everything that we did, and to move beyond our upbringing. And so it was, the week from hell. Forty hours of devotion- to the English language. With all of its quirks, and all of its demands for precision and illogic. But it had to be learned before we progressed- to high school and beyond. Grammar, and more grammar, until the students were ready to revolt in an uprising for the ages. Or a revelation that we could learn the rules, and bring a smile of satisfaction to one distraught teacher’s face.
I committed myself to memorizing the entire book. Two million pages of mindless drivel. Over and over the pages were turned, until my brain was numb with pain, and my fingers were bare to the bone. But I learned the grammar. English grammar. Not like anything else in the world. It was cold and heartless, and filled with mystery, as it was an unfamiliar language to me. But I learned, and I remembered, and I remembered it well.
Who knew that it would help me in the future? At the time, it seemed excessive and redundant with no clear picture of the value it would later provide. But it did. In ninth grade, and in tenth grade, and in eleventh grade and twelfth. Every year, we were given the Grammar test, and every year I would win- an exemption from a week’s worth of rules and regulations that I already knew. And every year it was the same…me and the three nerdiest girls in school, violin-players with pearl earrings and Coke-bottle glasses with braces to match. Geez.
The chorus from my classmates was always the same: “Ben can barely speak English…how did he pass the exam?!” And the response from the teacher was equally the same: “He had the highest grade in the class!” And I would leave the classroom, banished to the library, which was filled…with books. Which I never read. Life is to be lived, I would always say. Make your own adventures and make your own way. On my way out of class, I would shrug my shoulders and ask my grammar-deficient schoolmates why. It was easy, I said. Just memorize the book, and you, too, will be exempt. And they would throw things at me…wads of paper, textbooks, and the evil eye…and jeer at me in disbelief, as to how a kid from Ambler from a first-generation family, could master, of all things, English grammar!
As I did my time away from class, trying to avoid my “independent study assignment in lieu of grammar,” I kept thinking about Sister Edward Anthony. Hard to believe I was actually praising her for teaching me one of the most important things in life- how to follow the rules of English grammar. It served me well.
Strange where the roads of life lead you. Whenever anyone asks me about my favorite books, I can only remember two: Green Eggs & Ham by Dr. Seuss, and The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. I never really understood the green eggs, but I loved the Elements of Style, which was mandatory reading for all Villanova freshman. I still reference that book for tips, as it is the best book ever written:
elementary rules of usage,
elementary principles of composition,
the rules of punctuation and grammar (yep, there is that nasty word again!),
matters of form,
a list of “words and expressions commonly misused”, and
a list of “words often misspelled (no, it is not “misspelt!”).
The Elements of Style also demands that you “omit needless words.” Honestly, I still seem to have a hard time with that one.
In retrospect, it took time for me to appreciate it, but I owe that one nun a debt of gratitude. And it caused me to write this ode of praise, to Sister Edward Anthony and to all the teachers who molded me and guided me. And I stand by every word.
At the very beginning of time, God created man. But man proved to be a lazy, slothful & insolent creature. So God created the Good Sisters of St. Joseph, who would be responsible for teaching & nurturing men, and to form them into intelligent & thoughtful human beings. Shortly thereafter, God created the yardstick, which the Good Sisters used to aide them with their teachings. God also created the sturdy wooden pointer, with the black rubber tip, which the Good Sisters could also use- just in case the yardstick broke.
Later, in August 1956 to be exact, God created Benedict Iacovetti. As a young child, Benedict ventured to the St. Joseph parochial school in Ambler, PA. He was given over to the Good Sisters of St. Joseph, who molded him and shaped him into a fine, upstanding citizen. (Interestingly, some of those same nuns whom God created at the very beginning of time were still teaching at the St. Joseph parochial school during the 1960’s, when the young Benedict was under their tutelage!)
The Good Sisters performed wondrous deeds with the young Benedict. There, he learned all that he needed to know in life. For it is known throughout Pennsylvania that these nuns were well-schooled in the educational process. They were able to create miraculous results with meager resources. Certainly, divine intervention was involved.
After eight years of sweat & toil, the young Benedict was made ready. The Good Sisters instructed him as follows:
“Go forth & multiply; and as you live, so shall you prosper; and as you prosper, so shall you find it in your heart to share your good fortune with others. You will offer without question, and expect nothing in return, save for the satisfaction that you have done a good & noble deed.”
And so it was.
Benedict went forth , multiplied, and Laura was born unto this world. She was given a sharp mind & an athletic prowess, and an insatiable thirst for knowledge. And just as the young Benedict was given over to the Good Sisters, so, too, was Laura presented to the Mount St. Joseph Academy. At that fine educational institution, she would be molded into a kind & decent human being, and her athletic prowess would lead her to the field hockey pitch, and her thirst for learning would be quenched by the fountain of teaching and knowledge, known as the Sisters of St. Joseph. (It is interesting to note that some of those same Sisters of St. Joseph who God created in the beginning, and who taught her father at the St. Joseph parochial school, are still teaching at the Mount today!!)
And Laura, just as her father before her, would learn all she needed to know in life, as taught to her by the Good Sisters of St. Joseph.
Later, in a dream, Benedict was approached by one of the nuns who taught him as a child. Benedict was reminded of his good fortune. To better gain his attention, the nun clapped the yardstick against the palm of her hand. She suggested that he find it in his heart to help the less fortunate, just as others helped him.
When he awoke, a whisper guided Benedict to do as he was instructed: “Give back!” Benedict was guided to his checkbook, and his hand was certainly steadied- once again- by divine intervention, as he endorsed the check, which would allow the Good Sisters an opportunity to spread their teachings to a few needy families. As a reward, the next Pope, who took the name Pope Benedict XVI, was named in Benedict’s honor.
The moral of this story is simple: Do as you are told; always do good things; help others, as others have helped you; have a kind heart & a thirst for knowledge; and remember from whence you came. And maybe (just maybe!) they will name the next Pope after you!
Benedict J. Iacovetti, 61, is a Philadelphia native, and was raised in Ambler PA. Ben currently resides in Blue Bell PA, where he lives with Carroll, his wife of 34 years. He has two children, Michael, 30, who resides in Philadelphia, and Laura, 27, who resides in New York City. Ben attended Villanova University and Temple University, and is a CPA by training, and worked with the Arthur Andersen accounting and auditing firm in their Philadelphia and Bermuda offices. Ben is the chairman, president and CEO of the AF&L Insurance Group, which is headquartered in Fort Washington PA.