Sunday, October 08, 2006

My English Teachers (I): High School

A product of the Oil City, Pennsylvania public schools, a school district which once fired the young John Dewey for his too progressive teaching methods, I had terrible junior high and high school English teachers. Though I learned by the eighth grade to diagram a sentence with the best of them (I remember being the only one in the class who could do Milton's "On His Blindness" [Sonnet XIX] on the board and even performed the stunt on parent visitation day!), by the time I reached high school I already hated English, thanks to a series of boring and incompetent teachers, all of whom seemed (especially their names!--is it possible that I actually had a teacher named Verna Truby?) like characters out of some not-very-subtle satire.

My disdain reached its peak in 11th grade. Mrs. D. was an imperious, white-haired woman who not only gave extra credit for every symbol we could find in The House of the Seven Gables (the chickens in the back yard = repressed sexuality, etc.) but concocted a humiliating scheme in which 11-A students would tutor 11-Bers, including me, thereby allowing close acquaintances to be more than ordinarily supercilious and condescending to their about-to-become-former-friend. The highlight of the year, however, was our discussion of Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." The poem, we were told, and we had to regurgitate what we "learned" on a subsequent test, is about Santa Claus; indeed Kris Kringle is the speaker, taking a break "without a farm house near" to contemplate the work that yet lies ahead in delivering all those presents. (The "little horse" is, of course, really a reindeer; he thinks it odd to pause in an empty field because there is no house to deliver presents to; the speaker has "miles to go before [he] sleeps" because he has "promises to keep" to all those little boys and girls, etc.-you get the idea.) Though not yet literary, not yet even a reader, I smelled a rat. Such an approach seemed silly.

How silly I realized only recently, while teaching introduction to literature at Middle Tennessee State University. In the required text, Michael Meyer's comprehensive Bedford Introduction to Literature, I was surprised to find an excerpt from Herbert R. Coursen, Jr.'s "The Ghost of Christmas Past: 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,'" an essay, originally published in College English in 1962, four years before I suffered through Mrs. D's class. A parody of poetic interpretation, a "how not to do it" guide, Coursen's essay had evidently been misread by Mrs. D. with all the literalism of the British audience of Swift's "Modest Proposal." She didn't get the joke, and she passed on her lack of discernment to us. All over Western Pennsylvania there are probably hundreds of people now in their fifties who think the poem is about Santa Claus.

For part of the year, however, we had a student teacher, a Mr. Jennings from nearby Clarion State College, who for several weeks became our primary instructor. (Like many co-op teachers, Mrs. D. was more than willing, as I would later learn first hand, to surrender the lectern to her almost full-time sub while she took it easy.) This young man's enthusiasm was captivating, and for the first time I found myself falling in love (Platonically) with literature. As he talked on with the passion of a beginner on "Brian, Sheets, and Kelly," literature started to seem the most interesting thing in the world to me. Up until that point, I could not be bothered with reading even those books I was supposed to report on. (I remember faking my way brilliantly through discerning commentaries, complete with the required ten new vocabulary words from the Vis-Ed box, on Kon-Tiki and other standard oral book report tomes.) It would be another year before I really started to read, before Allen Drury's Advise and Consent got me hooked (and I read it five times before it occurred to me that with my new found ability I could read other books too), but it was Mr. Jennings' influence that got me started. Due to his stimulus, I began to think about being an English major in college.

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