I never knew her but Lela Leslie Willingham had a profound influence on my life. She was an English teacher in LaFayette, Alabama in the 1930s and 40s. She was quoted regularly in our home when I was growing up.
If anyone ever asked, “Where’s it at?” my mother answered, “Between the A and the T.” We all learned that it was not acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition.
My brothers and I would never–even if talking in our sleep–be tempted to say something like, “I seen it happen.” Any such butchering of the English language would, according to our mother, cause Lela Leslie Willingham to “roll over in her grave” and we certainly didn’t want to do that.
Proper grammar was important in our home. It didn’t matter that we lived in the woods; we were expected to talk like we were “somebody.” More than 60 years after my mother finished high school, I find myself telling my own child to look between the A and the T and realize that the fear of Lela Leslie Willingham is alive and well today.
She might have been sweet and beautiful, but I always pictured Lela Leslie Willingham as white-haired with a bun, chunky-heeled lace-up shoes, and a mean disposition. Either way, she was a real stickler for grammar—so much of a stickler that it has stuck for three generations.