Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Teachers Who Mattered
The late, great American fiction writer Flannery O’Connor once observed, “There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” That quote was put out recently in a writers’ affinity group to which I belong, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
It so happens that my next Quill Gordon mystery, still untitled, features a retired English teacher as the murder victim. In the book, I’m trying to portray her as a carrier of the highest standards — definitely someone whose students would never grow up to write Valley of the Dolls. Come to think of it, does anyone under 60 remember Valley of the Dolls? It was a sixties-era sex-booze-and-drugs shocker that was the sort of bestseller O’Connor was probably talking about.
But I digress. My point is that in my boyhood, teachers like the one in my book roamed the hallways of nearly every public high school, but, alas, no more.
Swift and Sure Punishment
My wife, Linda, teaches biology at a state university. One of her classes is a lower-division course intended to teach students the correct techniques for writing a scientific paper. She sometimes finds it frustrating when it’s clear she’s dealing with a student who seems never to have been instructed in the basic techniques of writing of any kind.
At the public high school she attended decades ago, the teachers were unforgiving of gross errors. She recalls that Mrs. Roark, an English teacher, and Mr. Hashimoto, a history teacher, demanded good writing. Another English teacher would give a student an F on a paper if it contained a single run-on sentence. Or a sentence fragment. Late at night, reading a muddled effort by one of her students, Linda is given to putting her head in her hands and saying, “This poor kid never had a Mrs. Roark or Mr. Hashimoto in high school.”
Attending public schools in Southern California in the 1960s, I was blessed to have three outstanding English teachers between ninth and twelfth grades.
Three Who Mattered
Mr. McDonald, who taught English and journalism in ninth grade, probably was more responsible than anyone else for setting me on my career path. He also assigned Gone With the Wind as a book in the English class, which was hugely valuable. No one who took that class would ever again be intimidated by the length of a book.
Miss Irwin, who taught American Literature my junior year in high school, taught us how to appreciate The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick. She also showed how to handle the racially-charged issues of the former book in an enlightened and sensitive way.
Mrs. Carruth was my senior year English Literature teacher, who had us read Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens, among others. The way she drew us into Austen’s moral world was a triumph of good teaching.
Reflecting back on those wonderful teachers, I’ve decided to dedicate my next mystery novel to them, in appreciation for what they taught me about how to write and how to read a book. The more I think about it, the more I figure it’s the least I can do, really. After all, if not for them, I might have written a bestseller.