“Second thoughts make liars of us all” and other useless high school remnants

What the hell does she mean? This crazy old battle axe has really lost it this time, and now I’m down to forty minutes to concoct a two page response to her craziness. Old people just don’t get it….oh, wait….

We had just finished reading Sophocles’ Antigone in my high school sophomore English and grammar class the week before. I was having a difficult time adjusting to Mrs. Gladys Youngs’ teaching style. She was about five feet, four inches, built like a Panzer tank, and came across that way in her drive to educate us in the college prep track. We had a vocabulary test every Friday in which we had to spell, define, and utilize 25 new words in a cogent sentence. We had grammar tests at least every other week, emphasizing everything from sentence structure, verb conjugation, and parts of speech to punctuation. We read poetry to analyze subtext – Ozymandius comes to mind. We read Greek tragedies by Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. We read classic literature such as Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The most draining, and terrifying, however, was the Wednesday essay. Every Friday as we would leave class, she scrawled a topic on the chalkboard. Every Wednesday we were to turn in a two page written response to her assigned topic. There was no minimum word count – no one ever DARED pull the typical stunts on Gladys – you know, large writing, wide margins, etc. She was one of the singular most powerful women in the community and was never afraid of making phone calls. She had been teaching at my high school long enough that I was convinced Moses gave her the Ten Commandments for proofreading before disseminating them to the Israelites!

The topic in question, due after my lunch period that day, was “Man’s Inhumanity to Man.” To be fair, I hadn’t given it a great deal of thought over the weekend. I had a wrestling tournament on Saturday, Dad and I had gone ice fishing on Sunday and I spent most of Sunday night trying to get feeling back into my extremities. Then there was musical rehearsal for Oklahoma on Monday and Tuesday night. Procrastination had always been a skill of mine, but now I was in serious trouble. I remember the panic as I snuck into her vacant classroom to try and generate two pages during my lunch period (I was a wrestler – we NEVER ate lunch!), and, in the middle of it, feeling that I was being beset upon by this woman, and the school. Snippets of Antigone railing against the injustice of Creon against her brother….bits of Sydney Carton as I read him (we read aloud in class) “I care for no man on earth, and no man on earth cares for me,”….and it somehow weirdly seemed to mesh with the fall of Saigon and what we were learning in government class about Wounded Knee, My Lai, and the Civil Rights movement. I did not know that this quote, taken from Robert Burns’ “Man Was Made to Mourn” (1784), was quoted by Dr. King. But I did know the last “White Only” drinking fountain signs at a supermarket in Grand Rapids had just been torn down within the last year.

I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, or anything other than the pen flowing out from my mind and my hand. When the lunch bell rang, I was scribbling the finishing touches. When it rang again to announce the beginning of class, the essay was finished and I turned it in with all the others. It was a first and only draft – no corrections – no deletions – and, most importantly, no spelling or grammatical errors. Gladys graded our work on a multi-tiered scale, with spelling and grammar each counting for ten percent of the overall total. She was ruthless that way.

I’ll bet you think that I mention the paper because I got an “A” on it, right? Wrong! Oh, you must have failed then, due to procrastination and cramming too much in in 40 minutes? No. I actually got a B+ on that paper. It was my highest grade from her on an essay to that point in the year. Gladys had scribbled down in the margin at the end “Finally, something from your heart. Something that is connected and makes sense. You just made some connections that didn’t altogether make sense with the evidence you provide. You should think about becoming a lawyer.”

I had always written well. I had also always had a pretty vivid and active imagination, so everything that I had written up until that point had been fiction. I had won a short story contest the year before with a twenty page tale about a family on vacation, driven off road by a gang of motorcyclists. The father leads them to shelter in a cave, and, as he explores the cave, he falls into a pit of rattlesnakes. It is then up to his teenage son to save him, and get the family to safety. Other stories I had written included cave man time travel (closely similar to Edgar Rice Burrough’s The Eternal Savage), evil Nazis plotting to enslave the world, etc. All inspired by what I was reading at the time…mostly old pulp reprints of “Doc Savage,” “The Shadow,” “John Carter,” and other hero stories that featured a social outcast who developed his intellect and used his physical strength to save the planet, save the girl, punish evildoers, and so on.

This essay, however, turned the tide. It proved to me that my ability to use language was not necessarily because I had a good imagination. Instead, what I did here was analyze, process, synthesize, and make meaningful connections that applied to my life, as well as life in general. Little did I know then that it would form the basis for my dissertation research. But it did show me that the best way to change the attitudes of those around me was to persuade, by building a case.

The next year, I joined our school newspaper and learned how to write succinctly, using specifics. An art which I have long since abandoned, some of my family and former professors would say! It also taught me the value of asking the right questions and how to follow those questions up to get to the real truth of the matter. This, in turn, helped me to learn to be persistent and develop a list of questions/issues for further probing, or dismiss if the narrative led in a different direction. By the way…what has happened to these traits of a true journalist? Why are today’s reporters allowed to get away with asking softball questions of politicians, business leaders, sports figures, etc.? “How did it feel when you came from 10 points down with three minutes to go in the game? What does it mean to you?” Seriously? You have nothing better to ask, like why did you make that specific play call? What did you see in their defense that made you choose that play? Or how about forcing a politician to specifically answer a question, and if they refuse, call them out on it? Ugh!

Anyway, these abilities closely aligned with my burgeoning imagination that was also being developed by my musical theatre pursuits.  In college, I continued to work on school papers, but my biggest area of interest was, of course, musical theatre. I took every form of interpretive course I could. Lessons in Stanislavski acting technique took my imagination and attention to detail to heights that paid dividends, not only on stage, but in regular classrooms as well. During my junior year at The University of Michigan, I took a Shakespeare class. The final assignment was to develop a ten page paper (by now there were word counts and margins and point size to deal with!) that presented an insight for a character in one of the plays we had covered, and provide an in depth study on how that character impacted the story development. I chose to argue that Polonius had schemed to have Hamlet fall in love with Ophelia, setting up control of the throne for Polonius should something tragically go wrong. I further argued that he had schemed to break up the marriage between Hamlet’s parents and have Hamlet’s father murdered. I knew it was a stretch, but the professor enjoyed the paper tremendously. He pulled me aside after the course was finished and asked what I had received in the second semester English composition course all freshmen were required to take. When I told him that I hadn’t yet taken the class because I transferred in from another university, he laughed and said “Well, don’t bother!” And he escorted me to the records department and waived the requirement for me.

This, of course, only enabled my excitement to see conspiracy theories everywhere! Within two years, I had written, and published, non-fiction research projects that outlined the impact the Florentine Camerata had on the Medici court in 16th century Florence – as well as the intrigue that played a role in the excommunication of Galileo for heresy. This was preceded by works which explored how Tolkien’s work was influenced by Wagner, which was influenced by the Viking mythology, which was descended from tales traced to the Baltic, which could be further traced back to the Visigoths as they migrated from the Steppes of Central Asia over 2500 years ago, interacting with, and adapting/assimilating various legends and myths from cultures along the way.

I had found my voice….sort of. But there was no place to use it. Other than for my beautiful wife, who at this point began her own college completion journey – but with three girls to nurture and care for. She hated writing. Always. Had developed some sort of a block, which I think came from being forced to journal in the middle of her parent’s divorce. She literally could only begin to write if she had consumed a wine cooler or two. Sometimes, not even then, so she turned to me for help. I would take her notes and synthesize them to put together a paper for her. Her longest required paper was 7 pages – took me about two hours, where she had been agonizing over it for more than a week. She read it, made a few changes to fit her verbiage style, and submitted. She felt guilty, of course, until I pointed out that it was her support that enabled me to get through undergrad, so I was just using my expertise to help her do the same.

Graduating from college with a degree in music education at the height (or depth) of one of the most serious economic downturns to ever hit the State of Michigan (1987) left me with few options. Nobody was hiring music teachers back then. Indeed, most schools were eliminating choir, band, orchestra, drama….

It was out of desperation that I finally turned to an employment agency and convinced them to send me out to a newspaper for an interview. I covered the circumstances of that job in an earlier post, but let me say here that it again renewed the fire of asking questions…but now coupled with a deep desire to right some wrongs. I developed a column, eventually, and won a Press Association award for a human interest story I did on a tiny baby, born prematurely to a very young set of parents who were unemployed and without health insurance. I told their story by interspersing details and circumstances with brief passages from the mother’s diary. The story was picked up by the wire service. The family soon after received all of the help they needed.

Unfortunately, sometimes conspiracy theories are not just theories. I uncovered a massive toxic chemical dumping program from a local manufacturing company. After investigation, and refusal of the company president to respond, I informed him that I was going to have to print the story without his version. He informed ME that the story would never be printed in the local paper. I wrote the story, submitted it to the typesetter, and was fired the next day. Turned out the manufacturer was also a part owner of the newspaper….no longer a silent partner! And my story didn’t run until a couple of weeks later. After a local television station did an expose on the dumping. After said television station received an anonymous tip about what was going on.

So back to education it was. By now the economy was on the rebound, and schools were hiring music teachers again, thanks to educational reforms that insisted music and the arts are core subjects. Unfortunately, for my students, they received a teacher that always believed in making connections across the curriculum and life in general. So they all had to write. Every year. And I graded them just as Gladys graded us. Much to the chagrin of several parents over the years. Some of them insisted I was not an English teacher and had no business correcting their baby’s grammar, spelling, syntax….One parent went so far as to suggest, in front of her daughter, that if I wanted to be an English teacher, I should put in for a transfer from music (she had no idea of the certification requirements, of course). The daughter, panicking, snapped “Mom! NO!” The mother turned and asked why – not politely, and making it clear that she felt she knew better than her daughter. “Because (he) grades harder than the AP English teacher and catches more stuff. We can’t not graduate because we fail choir, but they can hold us back if we don’t pass English!” End of argument!

This is, in essence, the failure of our educational system today. Not that we don’t teach them what they need to know, but rather that we fail to insist that they master it, apply it, and transfer that knowledge to other areas. In my classes, when we sang sonnets, my students learned sonnet form and I required them to write one. Why did they not learn this in English? In my classes, when my students sang a coffin song, they learned about societal traditions regarding death. When they sang a song in another language or from a particular text, they learned all I could teach them about the source and they were assigned to write an essay applying the universal characteristic expressed in that song to their own life. For final exams, essays were assigned (as 50% of the final exam grade) that required them to address physiological processes involved in singing and how their lifestyle had impacted their abilities that semester. Or how historical events shaped the composer or the lyrics of a selected piece from their last concert. Topics were written on the white board (we have evolved now!) the week before final exams. The students were told they could think about it, jot down notes on a 3×5 card, and do all the research they wanted ahead of time. But the essay was to be written in class on the day of the final exam. Yep. I was a hard ass!

This is why blogging is so important to me now. While I am very good at interpreting a script, I stink at improvisation. Always have. Even jazz. Especially jazz. Love listening to it. Hate performing it. Similarly, I can’t just get up and extemporaneously speak. There has to be a plan. I know I could never go see a therapist about what I am going through. Writing helps me work through this. It also flows better. I still write in a single draft, although I am better about proofing for spelling! Indeed, my first Master’s thesis was written in a compilation of first drafts! The work was 204 pages long – divided over six chapters. Each chapter was written in a single draft, in a single setting. Changes were only made after the committee reviewed it and insisted on…two! (Both were typos!)

The title of this post is a line spoken by the Sentry in Antigone…a minor line. But in re-reading the play this week, I realize it may have been more significant than I realized and became a sort of mantra for my life. My wife and I always told our daughters and our students that they needed to learn as much as possible so they could make informed decisions about their lives. Once those decisions were made, however, they needed to trust their instincts and never second guess themselves.

So the writing Gladys finally opened up in me…writing from the heart…is still helping me 45 years later! Who says you never use that high school English stuff years later???

Man was made to mourn: A Dirge

Many and sharp the num’rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And man, whose heav’n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!

And man, whose heav’n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!

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Forced into retirement at the age of 55 because I was foolish enough to finish a PhD program in an era of teacher bashing and budget cutting, I turned to cycling full time. Until my wife passed away in 2018 from a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Now I navigate the highways of the US on my bikes in search of a good Brew, good times with our grandsons, and in memory of her.

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