I had a wonderful English teacher in high school, Mr. S. He was my English teacher for junior and senior year, teaching English literature and then AP English. I think he was a genius. He was always an enigmatic figure. He habitually wore dark navy suits and there were rumors that he had survived a tragic loss of his whole family. We suspected he wrote gloomy poetry in his spare time and published it under a pseudonym. It was clear that he loved teaching and he showed a genuine joy in his work every day. (This is not the beginning of a eulogy, by the way. As far as I know, he is alive and well.) We used to hang around in Mr. S.’s room after school to talk with him, or during 7th hour when he didn’t have a class and us seniors didn’t, either.
The level of learning we had in that English program in my underfunded, troubled urban high school was far beyond anything I’ve ever seen in college or even at Clarion. Mr. S. managed to teach us to diagram sentences and to appreciate Shakespeare. He taught us to write a research paper and he gave us time to freewrite in the classroom with music playing in the background. Every year, he made each of us memorize the prologue to The Canterbury Tales and recite it in front of the entire class. In some kind of accent. It could be in some semblance of a middle English accent, “Whan that Apreeel, weeth hees Shooress sowtah, the drokt of mayrch hath persed to the rowtah.” But he also accepted presentations in any other type of accent we might fancy. People stood up and recited the prologue in French accents, German, Russian, whatever.
He motivated us to memorize the piece with this story:
Once upon a time a professor from Oxford spoke at an American university. I think it was Columbia. He began talking about the superiority of the English public school system. (Public being what we call private.) He said that American public schools couldn’t match the excellence of the education students received there, and as an example, he smugly asserted that in those English schools, each student memorized the prologue to the Canterbury tales.
This was not well-received by his American audience, but one student, a former student of Mr. S., answered him in the best possible way. She stood up, and belted out, “WHAN THAT APRILLE WITH HIS SHOURES SOOTE THE DROGHTE OF MARCHE HATH PERCED TO THE ROOTE AND BATHED EVERY VEYNE IN SWICH LICOUR OF WHICH VERTU ENGENDRED IS THE FOUR; WHAN ZEPHIRUS EEK WITH HIS SWETE BREETH INSPIRED HATH IN EVERY HOLT AND HEETH THE TENDRE CROPPES AND THE YONGE SONNE HATH IN THE RAM HIS HALFE COURSE Y-RONNE AND SMALE FOWLES MAKEN MELODYE THAT SLEPEN AL THE NIGHT WITH OPEN YE (SO PRIKETH HEM NATURE IN HIR CORAGES THAN LONGEN FOLK TO GOON ON PILGRIMAGES, AND PALMERS FOR SEKEN STRAUNGE STRONDES TO FERNE HALWES COUTH IN SONDRY LONDES; AND SPECIALLY FROM EVERY SHIRES ENDE OF ENGELOND TO CAUNTERBURY THEY WENDE THE HOLY BLISFUL MARTIR FOR TO SEKE, THAT HEM HATH HOLPEN, WHAN THAT THEY WERE SEKE. ”
We were all tremendously inspired by this story, and determined to memorize it well when surely we, too, would be challenged by an Oxford professor to prove our worth by reciting this piece of literature from memory. (Note: it hasn’t happened to me, yet, but I should probably brush up, just in case.)
In addition to all the learning and mentoring, Mr. S gave us the single best piece of writing advice I’ve ever had. “Take the personal, and make it universal,” he said.
I’ve known other bits of writing advice that come close. “Bring on the jets of semen,” is in the right neighborhood. (An apocryphal quote attributed to Gardner Dozois.) “Open a vein and bleed on the page,” is another one, but makes it sound like writing must be painful, or that what you write is only valuable if it exposes something bad or hurtful. I think Mr. S.’s words have the most truth.
In our lives, those experiences and observations that seem most unique, most internal, most strange–those are the very things that connect us together as a whole. It is not the bland, generic experience of going to the grocery store to buy a gallon of milk that interests others. It is the story about how you arrived home a different person afterward because of something unique that happened to you along the way that people want to hear.
This advice has also been the most difficult for me to master. It’s so much easier to stay “safe,” to not tip my hand to the reader about what I think and believe and what is important to me by pouring so much of myself into the story. But, in the end, that is all the reader really wants.
Last I saw Mr. S., he told me that he had kept some of my papers. Never returned them to me, and had kept them all of these years to read over occasionally, because they were so good. I was touched and flattered. But I think I’m still learning from him. I am still traveling down the road he set me on.