Thursday, January 12, 2017

Teacher Tributes: English

Since I can still occasionally form a complete sentence, I clearly don’t have enough parallel paths running through my brain at this point.

Therefore it’s time to begin a new category here at Dog Food For Chairs.

The idea of acknowledging teachers that had a positive impact on the formation of my current regeneration has been bouncing around in my noodle for a while, and I have a sizeable list that deserves credit.  The only reason I haven’t started them sooner is being unable to figure out which of those helpful influences to begin with.

Based on how much of my life I currently spend writing for this thing, starting with Language Arts (or English for the crusty old people in the crowd like me) works as an acceptable starting point. Plus it lets me be silly for a bit beforehand.

My connections to English teachers were always somewhat bumpy.  My grades were good, and I wasn’t a delinquent problem in class, but the positive teacher-student bond wasn’t there.  I am fully aware that a large portion of this is due to my inherent ability to marginalize my focus on subjects I have less interest in.  Trying to use a Star Trek quote for every thesis sentence probably didn’t help either.

However, there were cases where a little effort on their part to foster some involvement would have gone a long way.

In the first year our school offered separate subject classes, I fully take the blame for the “two spelling words per sentence” restriction on the homework that my sister’s grade had to deal with when she reached that age. 

(My grade is also responsible for most of the fun, outside the box, uses of the gym equipment being banned, but that’s a post for another day.)

I’d cram all twenty words into what I considered a highly creative compound-complex sentence, and have the homework done before I left the building.

Other years were about the same.

In Eighth grade there was a weird truce.  The teacher’s daughter was in our class and sat in front of the room with her friends.  Our group sat in the back of the class. There was kind of an unspoken agreement between us, that as long as we did the work well and didn’t interrupt the school related goings on, most days he’d ignore us, and we’d ignore him.

Freshman year of High School was filled with far too many new things to have any one stand out, but I was definitely more focused on geometry, biology and being terrible at German than on English. I do remember the “dress up as the person” book report. (Today they’re done publically and called “Wax Museums.”)  I was convinced that my knowledge of comedy trumped the teacher’s knowledge of biography conventions and told her that Steve Martin an Unauthorized Biography…Well Excuuuuuuuuuuse Us was really an authorized biography, and they were kidding. Yes, I do realize I was totally wrong about that. Sorry, Mrs. Polzer…and I’m also sorry for doing a book report with an arrow through my head, guaranteeing no one was paying attention to a thing I said.

Sophomore year was American Literature, and I’m still a fan of Washington Irving and a few other authors I met there.  During that year we had to write a poem about a place, and I wrote one that I thought was both introspective and emotionally revealing about “Nowhere.” The teacher read it to the class, prefacing it with, “Of course, Jeff’s poem is a riddle,” using a tone suggesting my heartfelt expressions were really an early step to a comedy writing career. 
OK, the fact that I wore giant plastic ears in class for no reason one day, leading her to put her head down on the podium when she noticed them with an exasperated, “I did not need that today,” may have contributed to her expectations.

I was normally taking advanced Science, Math and Computer classes, and even some of the higher level History courses, based on teacher selection.  This kept me firmly off the “Advanced English” path due to that “marginalizing my focus” thing.  Junior year, though, gave the opportunity to take British Lit as an advanced class.  

Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Arthurian legend, Grecian Urn Jokes and a bunch of other stuff my geekly little mind was already into lured me into that selection.   The teacher had no real sense of humor…or at least believed my humor had no sense.  Her high gravity, dessicatingly dry view of the subject matter conflicted completely with my more lighthearted interpretation caused by a view through the lens of Monty Python, Hitchhiker's Guide and Doctor Who.  

This rift caused many of my opinions to be marked wrong, which I didn’t think was allowed since I backed them up with reasons.  For example: While I agree that the classical interpretation of “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley is about impermanence, my point that 3000 years after his death, people still knew the his freakin’ name didn’t earn any merit. I suppose referencing “a cold sneer of command” as a compliment didn’t help my case.

Junior year was kind of the depths of a “coasting spiral” I was on (another post for another day) which certainly didn’t help.  Since I was familiar with much of the material to begin with, it allowed me to insert trivia facts at the end of my test essays…
Pointless and often insulting trivia facts. 
Gee, I can’t imagine why she seemed to have no sense of humor.

After British Literature, there were only two classes that would have been the logical step up Senior year.  One was AP (College Credit) English.  The other was World Literature, a.k.a. “The class after AP English for the English nerds that took AP in Junior year.”  Therefore I took a big step down with “Modern Novel.”  Most of the class was Juniors, meaning there was a chunk of time in class devoted to S.A.T. prep that I could ignore. The books were excellent and most have stayed with me into adulthood such as: Catcher in the Rye, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Rebecca, and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
 I am highly grateful for being introduced to these works, and the analysis of them.

At the time, I was highly grateful that most of these works weren’t very long, and the class assignments tended to be, “Finish this book in a month.” 

I’d read it the first night or two and have no English homework for weeks.  The clash started during in class reading time.  I may be the only student in history to get yelled at for working my way all the way through the Complete Sherlock Holmes, when I was supposed to be going over a text I’d finished long before.

Reading literature from the late 1800's (Dracula helped here too) gave me a deep and contextual understanding of many of those SAT vocabulary words that were a part of the class.  The understanding of the subtle nuances of the words allowed me to come up with accurate, yet highly ridiculous, sentences for the weekly assignments.  My comedy skills had reached a point that the Juniors in class would request mine be read out loud, leading the teacher to occasionally and sadly ask, "Does anyone besides Jeff have a sentence for this one?"   They also asked for my help explaining the words and some other concepts during class work fairly often, and several signed my yearbook telling me I was the reason they made it through the class.  Therefore my presence in there served more than only entertainment purposes.

The climax of the class came when final papers were assigned. The teacher walked through the room handing out authors to each student. People near me got names like Stephen King, Tolkien, or Tom Clancy.  I was excited that I might get someone I’d read already. She reached my desk and said, “Faulkner, Joyce or White.”  I knew who Faulkner and Joyce was and wanted no part of that.  Foolishly, I believed “White” to be the only author I knew by that name: E. B White of Charlotte’s Web fame.

I slogged through, and dutifully reported on, Voss by Patrick White- nearly five hundred pages about people lost in the Australian desert. Wikipedia describes the entire plot in two paragraphs.  That’s about right, as the rest was filler about how empty the desert was, how much it sucked to be there, how useless the women were, and how virile the men were.  In another scholarly first, I got a stern, unhappy talking to about getting a 98% on the report. 
Basically the gist was it was graded on a curve and I didn’t deserve it.
(This was true.)
And I needed to put more effort and focus not only into stuff I enjoyed but other areas as well.
(This was also true.)
I didn’t care as I was going to Engineering School and would never have to write again.
(*Looks at giant pile of Protocols and Technical Reports due shortly, and six years of blog posts*
This was not true.)

The topic of this post, however, is not “Why not enjoying most of my English classes and writing in general for a long time was primarily my fault,” but Teacher Tributes.

There was one English teacher that not only didn’t squash my sense of humor, but actively encouraged it in my writing. 

The Seventh Grade essays I wrote in Mrs. Novak’s class look more like my blog posts (with the exception that they are of a sensible length) than any assignments written afterwards.   Remembering them was part of my inspiration to start humor writing, once it wasn’t connected to any requirements.

She not only guided my writing in that style (and more normal styles) but also provided me with sources.

She introduced me to one of my favorite Jokes. (#10 on this non ordered list)

While my parents insured I knew who George Carlin was, and told me about the Indian Sergeant and some other older bits not available then, the first performance of “Al Sleet the Hippy Dippy Weatherman” I ever heard was by Mrs. Novak.

It is a sobering thought that if other English teachers guided, inspired and cultivated my enjoyment of writing in the same way as Mrs. Novak did, I may not have that giant pile of Protocols and Technical Reports to deal with today.

Thank you Mrs. Novak, for teaching me writing well and writing funny are not mutually exclusive,
For introducing me to a few stand-up comedians that my normally exhaustive influences missed,

And most importantly for having the patience and insight to help me control the infusion of my weirdness into my work, instead of stomping it out.


longbow said...

A) Awesome new category. Teachers deserve shout-outs

2) Me have Wariners Course too, two! Me learn bunches

Gamma) I had "Double English" in 11th grade where we took Jr and Sr English all at once with twice as much reading. At one point we'd read Mayor of Casterbridge, The Jungle, Grapes of Wrath, and some other depressing thing. Then teach said we'd be reading Beowulf next. My buddy Adam and I shot our fists in the air to celebrate since we'd both read it and knew it to be about montsers and evil and fighting and not about starving or wimpering

Jeff McGinley said...

a)Thanx, yes, yes they do.

ii) I think just about everyone our age in this country had it at some point. Standardization before it was cool.(or before it was reviled anyway)

flagellum) Doubling up classes was an ongoing thing for you then? I always felt a little bad when English teachers looked stunned when people would get excited over certain books. It meant they saw it far too infrequently.

Jesse Schell said...

Ha, wow, I also think of Mrs. Novak often!

Jeff McGinley said...

She was definitely one of the good ones.

Thanx for reading!

Cousin Michael said...

Jeff, you would be a student that every teacher would love. Intelligent, Suave & Debonair, articulate, and never tardy or absent. I wish people would realize that for the most part many of us would never be where we are if it weren't for teachers. The teacher who contributed most to my writing ability or inability if you wish was a black man. His name was Joe Washington. He was as gay as a $4 dollar bill. By todays standards the gay community would refer to him as a "Queer." Class was twice a week. Every class his hair was a different color. I still don't think they were toupees nor could I care less about his sexual preference. This class was based around a movement in "Writing" called "Writing in plain English." The basic premise was to be able to write anything so you didn't need a lawyer or an Interpreter to read it. We wrote short stories based on reading assignments and he would grade them so we would have them back the next class. He used a red flair to grade and my papers always came back looking like a blood transfuion with a leak in the IV drip bag. But as the class went on I got better (because of him) and till this day I remember him everytime I sit down to write something....even now at this writing.
When I was studying for my Masters, I had one professor, Dr. Burke tell me that my writing was the easiest to read and asked me if I would mind showing my paper to the rest of the class so they could see what he was looking for. Of course I said yes. I got an A in that class. Not because of Dr. Burke but because of Joe Washington. Thanks Joe! Always!

Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx so much for reading and sharing.
(And more importantly, TEACHING!)

There are a vast number of things that happen in life that remind us all of those teachers that really connected with us. I am very late on starting these.

thanx again