Commas and Dashes

Over a weathered, stained wooden table, she says simply to me: A comma is a whisper, a dash is a shout.

We were pouring over writings – my own or some famous writer’s – when she spoke those words. In the midst of fingering the scrolls decorating her dinner table, I paused. I like that, I thought.

For three years, she was my mentor and I was her adopted daughter. I called her my modern-day C.S. Lewis. Others called her my English teacher. But she was so much more.

For three years, she welcomed me into her home with lovable, bulldozing dogs at least once a week. I’d knock on her door and Moe and Rocky would come running and barking to greet me before her sweet face would show.

“Hi, Honey!” she’d say, and then, “Down, Moe!”

There I met Lewis, Wilbur, Shakespeare, double-stuffed Oreos, and pumpkin bread.

“Do you want anything to drink? Water, coffee, hot cocoa?” she would ask, her Minnesota accent coming through. “I have some Girl Scout cookies if you want some!”

Most importantly, I met a complex and beautiful God under her leadership. He was everywhere – in the pages of literature and the pages of Scripture, the lives of these writers and her life.

She pointed him out when all others saw was an author dealing with alcohol and depression or a classic English play. I’m sure some of these writers never even saw God in their works, but she did – she saw his absence and their misguided beliefs translated onto paper.

My Mrs. Barnwell encouraged me to write – non-fiction, fiction, composition, essays, etc. She fully believed in me, that I would be a writer one day. "You have a writer's soul and vision, a God-given ability to create something from nothing with words," she once wrote me. 

She paired criticism with encouragement. Though she would point out flaws in the midst of my writing, she would always conclude with a: This is great! You’ve done a great job of understanding and communicating so-and-so's themes or comparing this author's work to another's.

She went above and beyond her role as a teacher, wife, and mother. Oftentimes I would receive replies to my emails past midnight – she would apologize for getting back to me so late; she had to work at her husband’s veterinarian clinic because they were short on staff. She would work late grading papers, providing thoughtful comments to each student's words. She would tell me often her son's friend who was battling cancer; she was one of his biggest prayer warriors.These are just small glimpses into the wonderful person my Mrs. Barnwell is.


The saying about commas and dashes stuck with me – I always found myself leaning more towards dashes than commas. More than once I’ve been told I use them too often.

I often use dashes unknowingly to grab my readers’ attention: This is big! Don’t miss it!

I use them the way I think – when I pause or ponder, a comma or dash comes into being.

A comma is a whisper, a dash is a shout.

My time with Mrs. Barnwell was made up of thousands of commas – but looking back, it was all one long dash.

Each afternoon spent at her table, late-night email asking for advice on a paper, AP English class, or birthday present was a whisper.

Lined up like ducks in a row, they make up a dash.

Some commas aren’t noticeable, but dashes are bold and loud – hard to miss.

Commas are little moments that whisper, “There’s more. This moment holds more than you think – if only you would dive in. Grab hold of this moment because though it seems common, five years from now it will be your fondest memory. Grab hold and be present because three months from now, you’ll regret your absence.”

Commas are iridescent. They show beautiful colors when seen from different angles. The angle of I’m busy, or I don’t like where I am, or This day is mundane and insignificant doesn’t show the full beauty, the potential.

It’s been three years since I sat in her classroom, yet I still refer to Mrs. Barnwell as my teacher.

I wish I would have recognized every moment I spent under her influence as such as gift, a treasure, a comma. I wish I would have cherished it in the present instead of cherishing it three years later.

I’ve decided I don’t want to miss the commas. I want to recognize them when I see them; I want to grab hold of them – because one day, those commas will lead to a dash.

A dash in the form of an influential season, and one day, the dash of my life.