A Dickensian

Until I went to college, I disliked school. And I proved it, graduating 51st out of 98 -?perfect mediocrity.

But to clarify: I didn’t dislike all my courses. In fact, I loved some of them and they left positive lifelong impressions.

When it came to my junior high English teachers, I really lucked out.

For seventh and eighth grade, I had Mrs. Wilson. If she wasn’t the best teacher I ever had, she surely was tied for best.

She was smart and organized, and set up a perfectly logical syllabus, which she then forced her students to follow. She was tough as nails and broached no nonsense and in her long career I knew of only one kid who dared to defy her. Ironically, I was there when it happened.

The kid was a self-absorbed mama’s boy who had no respect for anyone and didn’t keep his attitude to himself. One day he decided to get over on Mrs. Wilson. She ended it immediately – and painfully – with a screaming roundhouse right that started in Riverside Park and ended at Crescent Bay.

Don’t misunderstand: Mrs. Wilson was no bully – she was just All Teacher. She had a mission, which was to make sure her charges left her class literate and disciplined, and I think we all understood that. We all (with the exception of the mama’s boy) also understood that under her blue hair and behind her cat’s eye glasses was the mind of a stone-cold killer and anyone foolish enough to mess with her would pay a steep price. Which is why only one kid ever stepped out of line.

I flourished under Mrs. Wilson’s reign. Through her grammar drill, she unlocked the mystery of language to me. I realized there was a specific structure to English (and thus other languages), and if I could understand the structure, I could understand all sorts of other things about it.

She also forced me to be more organized and precise with all my writing. When I left eighth grade, I had a comfort and facility with reading and writing that I’d never had before. This set me up perfectly for ninth-grade English with Mrs. Parsons.

Mrs. Parsons was a whole new world compared to Mrs. Wilson. For one thing, she was a whole lot looser. Not that she wasted time or was unprepared or didn’t know what she wanted us to do; she just wasn’t as driven and strict as Mrs. Wilson. Then again, few were.

Mrs. Parsons also had her quirks. One was she was a total Bloomingdale chauvinist. Living in Saranac Lake’s ‘burbs, she may’ve felt the denizens of My Home Town considered her and her townsmen second-class citizens. If so, she compensated for it: In her eyes the B’dale kids, could do no wrong, and she regarded all their misbehaviors, probably including the felonious, with affection, as if they were all just a darling bunch of little Tom Sawyers.

I never remember her being mean, but Bruce Goetz told me he was walking by her room one day and she came out in the hall, slapped him and said, “You shuffle your feet just like your father.”

Of course, back in those authoritarian days, we thought everything was our fault, so Bruce stoically accepted being punished for his familial shuffling as deserved, if not inevitable.

In spite of her geo-political bias and her less-than-Solomonic administration of punishment, I learned a lot from Mrs. Parsons.

The little lad in the land of letters

Her first assignment was a dictionary project. It was lengthy and in-depth, and while I didn’t get a good grade (my write-up was pretty lax and sloppy), I did get a good understanding of how to access dictionaries’ information. It also started my love of etymology, which continues to this day.

But Mrs. Parsons’ forte was her love of literature. When it came to our readings – poetry, essay or fiction – her whole demeanor changed. She was completely if not crazily engaged in the world of letters: Her teaching literature wasn’t a job; it was a labor of love, and I found it irresistible.

I mean, a 13-year-old pisher reading the works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Lord Tennyson and John Greenleaf Whittier and really enjoying it? I never would’ve thought it possible, had I not experienced it.

We read a novel that year – Ivanhoe. Scott wrote it in 1820 and it was about 12th century England, and I thought it was the most wonderful adventure ever. I remember reading the assigned portion, and then rereading it, just for my own pleasure. It also prompted my first foray into fiction writing, when I wrote a piece about an invincible black knight and one of his battles. It had to be overdone, clumsy and downright silly, but when Mrs. Parsons’ read it aloud in class, I was sure my future as a famous author was assured.

I had only one bad experience in Mrs. Parsons’ class, and it was all my fault.

Lousy expectations

She assigned “Great Expectations,” gave us plenty of time to read it, and for reasons I’ve never figured out, I waited till the last minute. A book report on it was due on Monday, and as of Sunday morning I hadn’t read word one.

I swore I’d start reading it after breakfast, but when I finished breakfast I had to devote time to some serious digesting.

Once my stomach had been put to rest, I came up with another thing to do. This was to hang out with my boon companion Ralph Carlson (who, as a point of interest, had finished both the book and the report long before the weekend).

After Ralph and I had our buddy time, I faced the inevitable: I had to sit in my room and start reading the darn thing … which I did.

But I was confronted by one major obstacle – Charles Dickens. Well, not Dickens personally of course, but his writing. I knew I was in trouble when I read the first sentence: “My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Phillip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.”

If Melville, who I also consider unreadable, could begin with “Call me Ishmael,” why couldn’t Dickens manage “Call me Pip”? Who knew? Who cared? Not me, that’s for sure.

But it mattered not, because I had to wade through his prose, which I found was like wading through quicksand. The more I struggled, the more I sank. Still, I plodded on and on and on.

Afternoon came and went, as did early evening and dinner. Finally, sometime around 8:30, I finished the cursed thing. At that point I hated it. But even more, I hated myself for my procrastination: By waiting till the last minute, I’d taken a merely lousy experience and turned it into a loathsome one.

I labored another hour or so on the book report. It was as vague and cliche-ridden as I could make it, since the last thing I wanted to do was tell Mrs. Parsons how I really felt about it, for fear she might want to know why, and then my procrastination and pedagogical perfidy would be revealed.

I don’t think Mrs.Parsons figured out what I’d done, exactly, but she did know my work was not up to my usual standard of literary criticism.

After class, she took me aside.

“Robert,” she said, “Did you have any specific problems with this assignment?”

“Uh, yeah, Mrs. Parsons, I did,” I said, fishing for an excuse. “I was ah sick, yeah, sick.”

And in a way I was. I was sick of Pip, sick of Miss Havisham, sick of uneaten wedding cake and unworn bridal dresses, sick of Dickens maybe even sick of the whole damned British empire.

“Well, I hope you’re feeling better now,” she said.

“Oh, I am,” I said. “Now I’m all better.”

And you know what? With “Great Expectations” now behind me, I really was.