Friday, August 27, 2004

A Remarkable Facility

Weekend Assignment #21: Everyone had a subject in school they like better than all the rest. What was yours? And what's the most memorable thing you learned?

Alternate Assignment: If you can't think of a specific class or subject you liked the most, which grade of school has the best memories?

I misquoted from Star Trek!Extra Credit: Class pictures!

This is my chance to write something I've been thinking about for a while anyway.  My Compaq just hibernated my first draft of this into oblivion, but I'll do my best to reconstruct it.

It may surprise you to learn that this bookkeeper and accounting student struggled in math for most of high school.  I also dropped chemistry (I had a D in it at the time) and didn't take physics, which was probably a mistake.  What probably won't surprise you a bit is my choice of favorite subject: English. I took four years of English in three years of high school.

Mr Hayes and his motorcycle helmetThe enjoyability of each specific English course depended on what was taught, who taught it, and who was in the class with me.  My favorite course was creative writing, which aced all three criteria.  It was taught by our own rebel of a teacher, Tom Hayes.  His hair wasn't all that long, but he had sideburns and he drove a motorcycle. He sometimes arrived a few minutes late, which I found endearing. He had even written a hip musical called (I think) Simon Says. He knew about Vonnegut, and wrote about Kilgore Trout in my yearbook. He also helped me improve my fiction writing skills considerably.  I produced my first decent, complete short story, "The Disc Jockey," in his class.  I also got to sit next to my boyfriend, Dan Cheney.

My second favorite English course was on essay writing. I liked it largely because I got to sit next to Dan in that class, too. Ms. Hiestand let us write essays about Star Trek (her son Wil joined our Star Trek club that semester). She had a Who's On First poster in the back of her classroom, which Dan and I memorized.  It also didn't hurt that the course exposed us to a lot of different kinds of essays, not just the five paragraph literary kind.

The worst of the English courses, aside from having to read The Scarlet Letter for Ms. Firestine (later Dr. Firestine, who didn't like the book, either) were taught by Miss Conklin.  She was perhaps seventy years old, strict and no fun. She even made us sit in alphabetical order. This placed me next to Karen Florini, who had resented me for seven years over a fifth grade rivalry for the same best friend. (The weird part was that I admired her in return for her talents and dedication. I think she's a lawyer now.)

Miss Conklin kept praising my blue polyester pantsuit (this was the leisure suit era), which was my cue to buy myself some jeans. The only good thing about her literature class was that I got to write a research paper about Sherlock Holmes, called "The Case of the Appealing Detective."  The only good thing about her drama class was the dramatic reading I did from Camelot with a large, friendly male exchange student from Brazil.  His pronunciation of the words was painful, but he had real feeling for the material.

Judith Gordon. Should I forgive her? None of those courses were the setting for the most painful, life-changing moment of my entire high school career.  That came courtesy of Judith Gordon.

Ms. Gordon was the department head, but she was almost as cool as Mr. Hayes.  In one of the courses she taught, comedy, she showed us a bracelet with bawdy charms that she said would fit right in with ancient Greek culture. We were studying Aristophanes at the time. In deference to AOL's terms of service, let's just say that Freud would have found the charms very interesting, especially as worn by a woman.  Another time, Ms. Gordon showed up with one of those head-to-toe garments women from the strictest Islamic sects might wear to be completely hidden from men's eyes. Ms. Gordon offered no initial explanation for this, and we didn't dare to ask.  Halfway through the class she burst out laughing.  She told us how funny it was for her to see how much trouble were were having, trying to cope with a teacher whose face we couldn't see, not knowing where to look or what expression she wore under the garment.

In a different course, Ms. Gordon once assigned us to write a how-to essay.  Somehow I didn't quite get the concept.  Instead of a straightforward set of steps in present tense, second person imperative, I wrote what I thought was an amusingly self-deprecating, first person how-to essay.  I got a D + + on it.  I'm not sure whether it was on this paper or another one that Ms. Gordon wrote the words of praise and condemnation that were seared into my brain forever:

"...a remarkable facility with words...."

She made it sound like a bad thing.  Because of my "remarkable facility with words," she claimed, I believed that I could write anything I wanted, break any rules I wanted to break, and still get a good grade on a paper.  In her view, it was not enough that I had an excellent grasp of grammar, spelling and punctuation, and knew how to be original and amusing. I also had to write to the assignment, fit the essay to the format, relate the examples to the thesis, and write shorter sentences. If I did not do this, I would get a lower grade than a clumsy paper that followed the rules.

I guess you could say that's the most memorable thing I learned: talent wasn't enough. It was also necessary to do what my first grade teacher had always complained that I didn't do: follow directions. Not that I've always done so since then, but that was what was required of me.

The other point here is that writing is more than blurting out first thoughts on the topic at hand. An essay needs structure - not necessarily a thesis, three supporting paragraphs and a conclusion, if that's not the assignment, but some way to organize what is being said so that it is clear to the reader.  Fiction needs a beginning, a middle and an end, usually including a climax and a denouement. (My favorite description of plot structure is "Get your protagonist up a tree; throw rocks at him; get him out of the the tree.") A tv script must be the right length, with the act breaks in the right places. Bottom line: Ms. Gordon was mostly right in her criticism.

Effective use of structure isn't always easy to learn, though. Ms. Gordon's remarks at the top of that otherwise forgettable paper were the beginning of my long battle with the literary essay, broken only by that painless course with Ms. Hiestand. At Syracuse University at least three professors, including Dr. Firestine, tried to explain to me how I failed to relate the examples to the thesis. I could not understand what I was missing, beyond a feeling that it was a "tell 'em what you told 'em" sort of thing.  I finished my senior year with five incompletes, all due to literary essays not written.

Now, a quarter of a century later, I'm writing essays on accounting, management and related subjects at the University of Phoenix. I'm four courses away from my BSB/ACC (Bachelor of Science, Business, Accounting). Even now, even as recently as today, it's hard for me to make myself write a formal paper. That old relate-the-examples-to-the-theme bugaboo has magically resolved itself, but I still put off the papers as long as possible.  (For the record, my favorite subject at UoP to date has been business law, of all things. Reading through descriptions of cases and the legal issues resolved in them is fascinating stuff.)

So what have I written professionally?  Essays, mostly.  My first sale was an essay in tribute to John Lennon for Relix Magazine.  Since then I've written music reviews for Relix, celebrity profiles for Starlog, and teeny tiny essays about Doctor Who on the backs of trading cards. I've also written dozens of essays, perhaps hundreds, for Star Trek and Doctor Who and Quantum Leap  fanzines.

And what do I usually write in this journal?  Essays.  But see, here's the thing: these are freeform, fun Ms. Hiestand essays, not Ms. Gordon literary essays.  And even here, after all these years, I still coast on - and am haunted by - my alleged "remarkable facility with words."



ryanagi said...

Me? I am amazed at your remarkable facility with NAMES! I have forgotten most of my teacher's names over the years. Only a few of them have stuck with me.
Good assignment. :-)

viviansullinwank said...

English was my second favorite subject...I took it almost my entire time in high school too.  I enjoyed your entry, Karen.


alphawoman1 said...

Another wonderful entry!  I hated math in HS also.  Found out I had a gift later the second time I went to college (and finished!).  If only I had known earlier I could have taken a different career path.  Then again, I believe we all are where we are suppose to be.

merelyp said...

funny what we learn after the fact.  My speech students have discovered that organization gets all the weight in my class-- something I jes' don't have naturally, but admire and strive toward.  They teach me so much, my students.
I also learned that knowing the rules makes so much more fun breaking them.