If I thought about it long enough, I might be able to recall his name. Mr. Hawley, Mr. Chatsworthy… Neither of those are it, but it’s something old world sounding like that. Like someone who had had his name changed when he entered the country or had left it spelled wrong, pronounced phonetically, half deaf.

Drath was the name of the teacher who he was substituting for. English was the subject. It was a cold day. Nothing particularly noteworthy about it. Substitutes are loved for their pliability, their targetability. The advantage they have to be taken.

He was small and dark clothed. He wore a hat and an overcoat and a scarf. It was formal, and though he was in the room before we came in he took off outer vestments and laid them over Mr. Drath’s chair. It took a full minute and we watched him silently. He introduced himself to the class. Some students in the class recognized him. He’d been around, substituting for other subjects at other schools and other grades, though I’d never seen him before.

He wrote his name on the board, something longer than Hall, shorter than Habisham. Then, before we could really settle into misbehaving, working at the chinks in his armor, he started writing something none of us could make heads or tails of. The following is what he wrote:

James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher.

He gave us a few seconds to soak it in as he made his way up to the lectern, or the front of the desk, or whatever was in that classroom (I don’t recall). Nor do I recall how many commas he said were necessary, or if he gave a number. All he said was that the sentence could work, if properly punctuated.

No one had anything to say. It was pretty simple. He challenges us to punctuate it properly, then regailed us with weird stories and asides. Like a carney or a magic shop owner.

I can’t explain why I still remember that sentence, except that it’s sheer improbibility, and the idisyncratic way Mr. Hoeverhewas recited it. So matter of factly. like Bob Costas analyzing two responses of past perfect sentence construction.

“Welcome back, this is Bob Costas and what we just saw here in Mr. Hastington’s english class, made all the more incredible (a true head spinner) by the fact that he’s just a substitute teacher (of all things) is a sentence the likes of which we haven’t seen in years, if ever: James, while John had had “had,” had had, “had had,” “had had” had had a better effect on the teacher. Sports fans, I didn’t see that one coming, and I honestly have no idea how this class is going to react.”

But I do remember it, though I remember little else about the class. Not the room number, not the building name, not the name of a single other student who was in that class.

It comes to me at times when my active brain is doing some wrote task or droning activity and the pensive part of my brain needs to be occupied so it doesn’t start trouble. It comes to me. The single conjugation. Inflected by a quirky looking man and spoken like a side show barker at a carnival. Like what he was telling us with this uselss sentence was interesting, meant something or taught us a lesson that would last our whole life.

It didn’t for me, it didn’t for any of the other nameless people in that class room. I have to assume that. I don’t know. Maybe if I post this on Facebook one of my former class mates will comment and tell me their thoughts on the matter. That is if any of them remember.

For whatever reason, the sentence comes to me when I’m hiking up a hill through snow, grinding up a long climb on my bike. Taking step after step under a loaded pack. For some reason it comes to me then. When my brain has nothing to do but twiddle it’s thumbs. When what I’m doing is just basic mechanical motion, and my higher functioning brain starts to churn again on this meaningless little sentence.

The way Bob says it above is my best attempt to punctute this. It’s based on the way Mr. Hangnail said it, though slower and more nuanced. Several of us tried to get up and place the commas, just pinning tails on the donkey.

When he said it, he spouted it quickly. He had had to say it several times. He threw some commas up on the board, but it was still just a mess of hads to our eyes. We left class that day confused and disatisfied. Nothing bad happened, no one got to make the substitute squirm. No one tested his resolve. No one got the commas right. We felt we’d been cheated, in more ways than one.


Have you ever heard this sentence before? Can you punctuate better than i have above?