Between the Lines

How a lesson in fundamentals gave me the bigger picture

From the Spring 2010 edition of Vanderbilt Business

NewDiagramSeveral years ago I had the privilege of working for David Ingram at Ingram Entertainment. During my time there I held different positions in a couple of departments, but one responsibility followed me wherever I went: Every fall I assisted David and his executive team in writing the company’s strategic plan. It’s fair to say that David took a chance when he hired me; I knew very little about business, much less strategic planning, at the time. Fortunately, though, David felt confident in my writing abilities because we’d both attended the same prep school in Nashville.

In fact, were it not for an English teacher whose class we’d both taken many years earlier, I probably wouldn’t have been hired—nor would I be where I am today.

If that sounds like an exaggeration, then you never knew June Bowen. For nearly 25 years she taught English at Montgomery Bell Academy and helped an untold number of students become better writers. David counts himself among those whose lives she transformed, and so do I. What set Mrs. Bowen apart was her exacting approach to the fundamentals of grammar. If memory serves, my first day in her classroom was devoted to learning, or should I say relearning, what a noun is, which my classmates and I dutifully copied down in our so-called “rule books.”

Over the ensuing weeks, those rule books filled up quickly as we put the basics into practice diagramming sentences. For those unfamiliar with diagramming, it involves breaking a sentence into its components—subject, predicate, clauses, etc.—and then drawing a representation of how they are connected to one another. For example, if I diagrammed this sentence, it would look like the illustration above. The point of the exercise is to get a better understanding of language by visualizing how the pieces fit together.

At Ingram Entertainment I got a similar lesson in fundamentals, only it was in business, not grammar. Working on the strategic plan gave me a bigger picture of the company and helped me see how its individual departments related to one another. In the process I came to realize that a well-run business is not all that different from a well-written sentence: Each is carefully structured and efficient, consisting of only what’s necessary to get the job done.

Of course my time at Ingram Entertainment was nothing compared to a formal B-school education. Yet, had I not had that experience, I wouldn’t be nearly as confident covering the Owen School in the pages of this magazine. I still lean on the knowledge I learned from working on the strategic plan, just as I still lean on the knowledge from my school days. And in some sense my approach as editor is a continuation of those previous lessons. When working on a story, I always take a step back, look for connections between the individual pieces, and fill in the blanks—much as I did all those years ago at Mrs. Bowen’s chalkboard.

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