Monday, November 1, 2010

An All Saints Memory: Teachers and the Cloud of Witnesses Surrounding Us

I'm not sure if All Saints' Day is provoking these memories (the invisible cloud of witnesses surrounding me includes, always, teachers), or the ongoing discussion of the astonishing remarks an Arkansas school board member made recently about suicides of gay youth.  Anytime an incident like this occurs in our state, we remember and talk among ourselves again about the terrible toll lack of education takes on us as a state.

Whatever their source, my mind has been full today of recollections of one teacher who made a distinct impression on me in my growing-up years, and who deserves to be remembered in any canon of the witnesses who have pointed to me paths of virtue.  Her name was Ida Cook.  She was my 9th-grade English teacher.  She was tall, thin, with a high crown of pinkish hair around her head, which my younger brother Philip, who was always far less enamored of elderly ladies and authority figures than I was, dubbed "cotton-candy hair."  Hair he claimed she combed forward on her forehead to hide a bald spot.

And I can hear, even today, some of the statements that fell from her mouth, over and over, in the course of the year she taught me.  I can hear them precisely as she said them, in her carefully enunciated north Arkansas accent that informed us lazy children in the Deep South portion of the state that she meant business:

"Don't tell me that they say.  I want to know who they are.  And why they think what they think, and where they got their information."

"As Mr. Pope says, 'A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring.'"

"Why do Arkansans have such big feet?  Because we stay green so long."

"Never forget Miss Teasdale's reminder about the value of memory: 'Into my heart's treasury/I slipped a coin/That time cannot take/Nor a thief purloin./Oh better than the minting/Of a gold-crowned king/Is the safe-kept memory/Of a lovely thing.'"

"When people invite you to lower your standards, please invite them to come up to yours."

It has been over forty years since I have heard the emphatic voice that uttered those words, but despite the passing of time, they remain in my mind as clear and distinct as they were on the days in which I heard all of these aphorisms pronounced, over and over, by Ms. Cook.  They have shaped my life and character.  They will continue to do so up to the day of my death.

As have her lessons on grammar and essay writing.  Having sat through endless lessons in dissecting and diagramming sentences in her class, I would no more dream of imagining that a pronoun's function in a clause depends on the preposition of which the clause is an object than I'd dream of flying to the moon.  

Last week, when I read a mystery written by a rising young New England author educated at Middlebury College and Trinity College, Dublin, in which a character observes that "he went with whomever invited him," I could immediately hear Ms. Cook's tart voice ringing in my head, asking who on earth ever imagined that the "whomever" functioning as a subject of the verb "invited" in that clause was the object of the preposition "with"?  And I could immediately see the sentence sprawling across the board, carefully diagrammed to show me that the entire clause and not the pronoun serving as the subject of the clause served as the object of the preposition "with," and that "whoever" was the subject of "invited."

Are younger people no longer taught these basic lessons in English, even in elite schools in highly educated sections of the country, I wonder?  Or are there simply fewer (heavens no, you wouldn't use "less" in this observation) Ms. Cooks around to serve as grammar police for impressionable young folks who need to be disabused of the notion that what "they say" must be correct, if they say it?  They may say "I was laying in bed" till the cows come home, but any fool with a smidgen of education knows that hens lay, while people lie.  And there's no such creature as "a couple things" or "a coffee."  One observes a couple of things here and drinks a cup of coffee there.

Above all, I value the rigorous lessons I received in the art of constructing paragraphs at Ms. Cook's hands.  And in the art of cobbling paragraphs together into a coherent, flowing essay.  I say "art," but there was little art at all about the technique of essay-writing Ms. Cook taught her pupils.  It was hard, unambiguous work, and work that one could expect to do over (and over again, if necessary) if one's first stab at an essay wasn't right.

Essays had to be written in longhand, with a fountain pen, with not a single word crossed out, with margins precisely aligned along the line running down the left side of the page.  And those were just the formal rules for an acceptable essay.

They also had to contain clearly delineated paragraphs that began with a concise, even punchy, opening statement and moved to a transition point that either reiterated the opening statement or provided a springboard for the movement to a new paragraph.  Nor could the paragraphs stand alone.  They had to flow, one into another, as thought itself flows, as a stream flows, along a riverbed and not all over the tarnation world like a flood out of control.

More than anything at all, though, I think I admire Ms. Cook for assigning my ninth-grade class Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird as one of several novels we read in that advanced English class in 1965-66.  And about which we wrote endless essays.  And held vivid class discussions in which we put to the test the rule, I want to know who says it and why they say it and where they got their information.

Ms. Cook assigned what even today remains a politically volatile novel to a 9th-grade English class in a sleepy, very conservative south Arkansas town a mere year after the Civil Rights act turned our lives upside down.  The decision to feature this book in our class and to challenge her 9th graders to think long and hard about race and its function in our society was, I now realize, a decision that demanded no little courage, at the time and in the place in which Ms. Cook made that decision.

And for that courage, and the tart lessons, and the badgering that made me discontent with what they say and what they tell me to think, I will always be grateful.  I rather doubt that Ms. Cook liked me very much.  A young person can tell that, somehow.  She was far from the warm and fuzzy teachers of today who substitute hugs for necessary, acerbic lessons that children won't learn otherwise.

But I celebrate and will always revere this doughty woman who made such an impression on me, and I am grateful for all she offered me.  For all the Ida Cooks of the world present and past I light a candle in my heart this day of all saints.

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