Friday, January 2, 2009

Anyone Seen Mr. Elam?

I've probably related this story in the past, in a different connotation, but today it struck me as funny. Again.

As a kid I was always 12 going on 35. Small, shy and easily lost in a crowd, I knew that "standing out" would never be my forte. But with words I found a world I liked. Enjoyed. A place where I could be ruler for a day. The land of "No harm, no foul". Yes, this is probably how writers get typecast as having a "God" complex because we not only create a world of our choosing, we get to smite anyone who gets in the way. However we choose. And it's legal.

My Dad lovingly referred to me as his "mathematical idiot", as my brain absolutely froze when anyone added "X" and "Y" to all those numbers. Dad determined I'd survive because I had a good concept of money... meaning I spent mine and did not spend my time trying to get his. So it's not hard to see that English is where I excelled. The fact I had wonderful English teachers during my most important time of learning, ages 12-18, didn't hurt. No, I wasn't enthralled with the grammatical rules governing semi colons and homonyms. I wasn't thrilled by identifying metaphors or similes, although I did like like the sound of onomatopoeia. I can safely say I have NEVER felt the need to diagram a sentence after learning how that worked. I did, however, love weaving words into stories.

I truly admired my 7th grade English teacher, Mrs. Kitchen. She looked like a picture book Grandma. White hair swept back in a simple bun, a round, pleasant face with rosy cheeks and a perpetual long as we were listening. I sort of pictured her as an escaped Mrs. Claus, bent on teaching all the good little boys and girls how to speak and write properly. Ironically the only "coal" she handed out was to children who chewed gum in class. The punishment was to memorize a poem, then recite it in front of the entire class. I'm not sure if it was just the "good kid" in me that made me able to dislike gum during time with her or the horror of turning the words I loved into possible public humiliation. Reciting in disgrace seemed awful.

One day, Mrs. Kitchen asked us to write a simple poem. For the first time in my life, the first line sprang into my head out of nowhere, to be followed by three more. There it was! Complete, like magic. I double checked the spelling, found everything done properly and then sat back in horror. What in heaven's name had possessed me to write such a thing?

One day I found the world quite dead.
So I began one in my head.
And there was something I did find.
I'd rather live within my mind.

Dear Lord! I remember thinking. Have I lost my mind? Already? I'm too young to be a hermit.

Time was up and there was nothing I could do but pass my paper forward as Mrs. Kitchen stood at the front of the room, fingers moving like a magician's, motioning a wave of paper into her grasp. She placed the pile on her desk, then proceeded with whatever piece of literature we were studying at the time.

That night I went home, worried. In bed, I tossed and turned. Live in my own mind? I questioned myself in horror. You have friends. Family. Okay, so the little sister was a giant nuisance but she hadn't physically maimed me. Yet. Why would I want to push everyone away to create a world of my own?

Now that I'm older, the answer is easy. Because I could.

It took a giant red "A+" at the top of that page and an enthusiastic scribble of "Excellent work!" to convince me that no one was coming with a butterfly net and a jacket with arms in the back to take me to a padded room. Mrs. Kitchen continued to gently push us through commas and apostrophes and yes, diagramming sentences. She encouraged me every step of the way, including the part where she practically cajoled me to offer the little disturbing poem to the school's literary magazine. When I saw it in print, I was sure she had pulled some strings if only to show off what her students were capable of doing. She swore that wasn't the case. And I believed her because "honor" was a big concept in her class.

You see, Mrs. Kitchen and the teacher who followed, Mrs. Teer, were a major influence on allowing me to be me...on paper. They knew when to encourage and how to gently point out the error of my ways without making me feel hopeless. Or foolish. They shared parts of themselves as people, which only fed my curiosity about discovering the "why" of how people are different.

There was poetry memorization and performance in Mrs. Teer's class as well, but not as punishment. My first performance was Walt Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain". Hard to forget a poem where the poor guy's first appearance is, "...oh the bleeding drops of red. Where on the deck my Captain lies, fallen cold and dead." My most heartfelt recitation was Kipling's, "If". To this day if I get angry, a little voice in my head will whisper, "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you." And yet for all the serious poems she taught, it was she who introduced me to Ogden Nash...the poet who made me giggle. On purpose.

What I remember most about tall, thin Mrs. Teer was that she painted pictures with words and personal stories. Which is how, this many years later, I can still remember her telling us about the first story SHE every wrote, "How the Robin Got His Red Breast". The answer: "he fell into some ketchup". Or how, being the tallest kid in her class, she quickly tired of hearing, "Hey, how's the weather up there?" One day, she confessed, she'd gotten angry and spit on top of a boy's head while answering, "It's raining!" Although she encouraged us to pursue whatever made us happier, thus more interested in learning, her stories made me want to tell other people's stories along with my own.

By the time I got to Mr. Elam my senior year of high school, I was confident. On paper. Mr. Elam, looking every inch like Ichabod Crane come to life, wasn't interested in pretending to be William Shakespeare, like his co-worker next door. Whereas that class spent an entire year worshiping at the alter of Shakespeare, discussing period costumes and building a model theater, Mr. Elam prepared us for life. He ensured that when I arrived at English 101 in college, I did not fall into the trap of the dreaded "comma splice". He challenged us to think BEFORE we wrote, which had nothing to do with research but in thinking things through. My favorite assignment was the time he asked us to write simple instructions for an every day item. I picked tying shoes. How hard could that be? He promptly told me the words "knot, tie and laces" were off limits. We learned, not by having him bleed all over our papers with a red pen, but by having him stand at the front of the room to perform whatever we were reading to him. When it was my turn, I began to wonder if he had a problem following instructions. I read it twice. He praised me for my ability to work around the forbidden words, but he couldn't make it work. He asked if reading my own instructions, I had been able to tie my shoes. I had. No problem. Some teachers would've said, "Well, you're wrong. Sit down." Not Mr. Elam. WE had a problem, therefore WE needed to work it out together. So he read and I tied my shoe. Easily. He made me do it again. I will never forget the smile of understanding on his face when he yelled, "A ha!", like a scientist during a eureka moment.

And he'd had one. Courtesy of me. Mr. Elam pointed out with a huge grin that right handed me was tying my shoes...left handed.

And so Mr. Elam deconstructed our work in a way which was helpful. We received two grades: the first for grammar and the second for originality. What I loved most about Mr. Elam was the fact he took the time to highlight the parts we got right. Enthusiastically. In Mr. Elam's eyes, the second grade was the most important. He believed anyone could learn the basics of English grammar. But something well written, he would say, is when the writer makes a point you don't forget. When I arrived in English 101, my first professor complimented my initial assignment by noting that I seemed well prepared for someone so young. Sure I secret weapon had been a guy who looked like Ichabod Crane, was more noble than William Shakespeare and had the same sense of humor as Odgen Nash.

When I was in my twenties and sold my first story to a newspaper, I sent a copy of it to Mrs. Kitchen and Mrs. Teer. I added a note thanking them for participating in my success. With them caring, instead of being present just to earn a paycheck, I had been able to keep enjoying my love of words instead of putting them aside with childhood toys. They were instrumental in nurturing my life long love affair with words and I needed for them to understand. Mrs. Kitchen passed away 6 months later. Before she did, I received a hand written note telling me that it was I who had given a gift to her...the knowledge that she had made a difference. I ran into Mrs. Teer a year later. She commented that teachers are human, wondering if they actually do make a difference, and thanked me for giving her a passing grade.

I still have a thank you note to write because I missed one. And I'm reminded of that every time I tie my shoes. Guess my next assignment will be, "In search of Mr. Elam".


Susan said...

I recite Ogden Nash to my kids and they think I'm nuts. (Yeah, well...)

I never did like Walt Whitman, but I love YOUR poem: it belongs on a t-shirt for writers! There's your fortune made right there.

Good luck finding Mr. Elam. My son still can't tie his shoes, and I'm convinced there's somewhere a key that will unlock it for him, that we just haven't found...yet. I can't wait for the 'click' however.
Maybe WE should look for Mr.Elam too!

the broken down barman said...

i love your poem as well.
there is one thing about teachers, we all remember the good ones. the ones who actually cared and, like u say, the ones that were not just botherd bout the pay check. i had three at my secondary school. one in chemistry, one in english and one in history. to be fair there were others that cared bout education, but i either never had them or they were only interested in the "good" students!!
met my nephew over the festive period for the first time, he is five months, and he has really changed my world. what a guy!!!
thank you again for everything you have said and all the support you have given. you are a star.

Ken Armstrong said...

A 'thank you' to my English teachers is something which has been on my mind a lot lately. Two, in particular, took an interest in my seeming aptitude for words. Both 'made a difference', a big difference.

Maybe I will drop a line, maybe I will...

Rachel Fox said...

They sound like great teachers. And I like the poem, very much (you and my small girl are kindred spirits indeed!).

As for laces...thank heavens for velcro!

hope said...

Susan, if I can figure out how to word it again, I'll share the story. It was based on the one Mom used to teach me to tie my shoes. In fact, I still use it with the kids at the Center. It was a creative way to get around those words I couldn't use. An adult will look at you as if you're nuts using the analogy of a Bunny looking for his ears, but kids love it. :)

Thank you Barman! Everyone can use a kind word or two and yours is helping chase away the effects of the antibiotic from hell for my bronchitis. Glad to see you survived all the happiness of the new year. Aren't nephews great?! My nephew Drew is 9 and we've been buds from day one. I'm a towering 5'1" and he's already 4'10". On Christmas day he wanted to know why everyone was laughing when he sat on my lap. When his Dad [my bro] said, "Aren't you getting a little big for that?" Drew answered without hesitation,"But she's comfortable!"

Ken I swear those two notes made me feel probably better than the recipients. Go ahead...make their day.

Rachel...well of course Small Girl and I are. We both still believe in Santa. ;) Thanks for the kind words...I always worry that someone will read that little ditty and still call the nuthouse to come get me.

Dave King said...

That is a truly great story, not harmed by the poem which has a touch of magic about it. You have reminded me that my thanks are due to my art teacher, who taught me m ore about writing than ever my English teachers did. Don't worry, I'm not going to bore you with it now - I may post about it ione day. In the meanwhile, many thanks for yours.

Terence McDanger said...

Lovely post hope, and a nice poem as well.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading that.

hope said...

Thanks folks! And if I ever find Mr. Elam, I'll let you know how that went. :)