Kitty Burns Florey’s “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog” is a creative personal essay that pays homage to sentence diagramming, a grade-school task that Florey recalls as having been “a bit like art, a bit like mathematics.” (p. 152). Heavily-planted similes and metaphors, including an ongoing comparison between sentence diagramming and orderly roadways, work effectively alongside illustrations to design the essay’s lush written landscape. Although my own grade-school curriculum was void of the practice of sentence diagramming, the essay’s landscape evokes genuine interest in the unfamiliar and dated practice of visually charting the parts of speech that, as Florey highlights, we so often take for granted when composing sentences.
It may be fitting to say that “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog” is as much an ode to figurative language as it is to sentence structure since Florey employs the former with seemingly great purpose throughout the essay. There are at least eleven similes sown within the piece as well as a handful of metaphors—quite a few for a relatively short essay. In fact, Florey opens with a simile, remarking, “Diagramming sentences is one of those lost skills, like darning socks or playing the sackbut, that no one seems to miss.” (p. 151). Although some similes seem to be present with no relation to the others, still many seem to constitute an overall theme; Florey often compares diagramming sentences with road systems, especially in relation to commuters and dwellings. The first example lends itself in the second paragraph: “I learned [sentence diagramming] in sixth grade from Sister Bernadette. I can still see her: a tiny nun with a sharp pink nose, confidently drawing a dead-straight horizontal line like a highway across the black-board…” (p. 152). She continues with this theme by describing the diagrams as “maplike” and referring to the words within the diagrams as “houses on a road.” Further along, Florey forms a connection between a chaotic diagram and a modest commuting scenario by stating, “A good spatial sense helped [students] arrange things so that the diagram didn’t end up with the words jammed together against the edge of the black-board like commuters in a subway car.” (p. 153).
By using transportation systems as a means of comparison, Florey is subtly creating an analogy that might read as follows: sentence diagrams are to grammar as organized roadways are to transportation. The virtue to either end is organization, though Florey drives home a critical point (no pun intended): Just as an orderly network of highways, interstates, and streets will not teach a commuter how to drive well—after all, that requires an understanding of transportation laws and familiarity with driving—a visual dissection of sentences will not teach a writer how to write effectively. Florey literally states, “Diagramming may have taught us how to write more correctly—and maybe even to think more logically—but I don’t think anyone would claim that it taught us to write well.” (p. 156). Ultimately, the diagram-roadway analogy implicitly presented in the essay adds more credibility to that assertion and provides the reader with an effortless route on which to arrive at that conclusion with the author.
In addition to a series of carefully-thought similes and metaphors, “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog” revolutionizes the use of illustrations in the personal essay genre. Of course, personal essays before and since have used visual aids, but the extent to which the evolving diagrams are incorporated into Florey’s essay is not easily duplicated. These diagrams have a dual purpose. First, they familiarize the reader with this increasingly obsolete practice. Second and most striking, their use adds immense creativity to the essay as the concluding sentence refuses to conform to the typical text format and is instead conceived using a diagram. Creativity is among the most prevailing tools in a writer’s arsenal to set his or her work apart from lesser material and Kitty Burns Florey has done just that with “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog.”
Florey, Kitty Burns. “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog.” The Best American Essays. Ed. Robert Atwan. 7th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014. 151-156. Print.