Fire Island, the skier and the Ten Ant

by Brian Clarey

The army ant general lined up his 10 best ants, and paced in front of them. He got right into the first soldier’s proboscis and gave him his marching orders. “I want you to go out there and tell the truth! Now go! Go!” And off the first ant scurried, to go tell the truth. The army ant general went on down the line, giving similar orders to all his best soldiers: “Tell the truth!” “Tell it like it is, ant!” “Be honest, you mudcrawling, exoskeletal bastard!” And so on. But then the general got to the tenth ant, and he had a different set of instructions for this last soldier. “Lie, you ten ant,” he said. And that is how you spell “lieutenant.” LIE-U-TEN-ANT. The story comes courtesy of one of my favorite teachers, Mrs. Bohlin, who passed last week after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. I haven’t seen her in years, and already I miss her terribly. I often credit my mother, also an English teacher, with my proclivity for the written word, but it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge Mrs. Bohlin’s contributions to my abilities as a reader, a writer and a thinker. I learned more about Ann Bohlin, the woman, from her obituary than I ever did in class. I did not know, for example, that she was from Chicago, because I was too young when I knew her to place her flat Midwestern accent. I didn’t know she held a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which she likely got at a preternaturally young age. And I didn’t realize she spent her entire 41-year career in the same school. I met her on my first day of junior high, seventh grade, in 1982. They called it Garden City Junior High back then, grades 7 through 9. A group of about 30 of us had been culled from the general population and installed in a program designed to enrich the young minds of those deemed scholastically talented and gifted. Everybody else called us “TAG fags,” which, of course, is what we now call ourselves when we mess with each other on Facebook. Mrs. Bohlin was the anchor of a teaching crew assigned to shepherd this group of bright, socially awkward adolescents, and she dove right in with Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout, a novel about a band of troubled misfit teenagers who sneak out of camp to free a doomed herd of bison. It resonated among me and my fellow dweebs like a gong in the bathroom. She also had us turn out the lights and stare at candles, or freewrite, or she would take us outside and have us sketch trees and buildings. For individual projects, we could choose any form we wanted — art, writing, music, carpentry. She helped me write my first play in the spring of ’83, a murder mystery that took place in the network of trails that laced across Fire Island. No one had ever told me that 12-year-olds didn’t write plays, and Mrs. Bohlin sure wasn’t gong to stop me. We produced and performed it right there in her classroom. Oh, she had my number all right. She had all of our numbers. Most teachers consider themselves fortunate if they can reach one or two students a year. Mrs. Bohlin touched us all; the threads on Facebook can attest to that.

Mrs. Bohlin loved Fire Island; she and her husband Dr. Bohlin had a house there, I believe, and every spring they would take students on the relatively quick bus trip out from Garden City. We’d run down sand dunes, take pictures of wildlife, sketch the beach grass and eat sandwiches with sand in them. I still remember that trip, particularly the ride home which I spent making out with my awesome nerdy girlfriend Alex Groody in the back of the bus while Eddie Grant’s “Electric Avenue” played on a boom box.

Are you out there, Alex?

But what I will always remember are her mnemonics. Mrs. Bohlin had a wonderful mind, and she was as strict a grammarian as ever I’ve encountered. She taught us prepositions by drawing a mountain on the chalkboard with a skier on it and the sentence “The skier went [blank] the mountain.” The preposition, she explained, was the word that went in the blank: down, across, through, along, under, beneath, inside… whatever; they were all prepositions. I think about that all the time.

I will also never forget how to spell “rhythm,” because rats have yellow teeth. Get it? R-H-Y-T and you’re pretty much home.

She had another for the word “medieval,” which escapes my somewhat damaged memory. But her masterwork, her piece de resistance, was the song she wrote about the helping verbs, aptly named “The Helping Verbs Song,” sung to the tune of “Mary Had a Little Lamb. I will repeat it here for posterity. This one’s for you, Mrs. Bohlin:

Am is are was were be been, Have has had, Do does did. May might can could Shall should will would Are the helping verbs. Must! “Don’t forget the ‘must,’” she used to say. “That’s the best part.”