The English Teacher
“…I still didn’t have the paper done, God, it was bugging the hell out of me anyway. I always screw things up really bad in that class, and MacHardy even kinda bugs me. He’s always picking things apart, you know, analyzing too much. I suppose a teacher’s gotta be consistent or something or else parents would be curious, about his competency, I mean.” —Jeff Dunne, “The Crowded Room”
They were the ones creating all the stress, the assignments—and doling out those dreaded grades.
And while that may be putting it a tad strongly, they were on the other side of the fence from us kids. Especially us nerdy ones.
I almost never think about the teachers in my life, but I did just recently.
You see, my high school English teacher (and student newspaper advisor) Paul McHale died on July 14. He was 82 years old.
After all, Paul McHale was probably 45 years old when I was in his Advanced Composition class at Mound Westonka High School (photo above, left, from 1978). Back then 40-anything was old. I mean, as old as my parents old.
And like parents, teachers were the kind of people that any teen needed to view with the utmost circumspection. It was simple: they could rat on you at any second! So it was always best to keep them at arm’s length.
Still, I’d gotten off on a good footing with teachers all the way back to elementary school in Maryland. Then, once I’d moved to Minnesota, there was my Grandview Junior High School English teacher, Rhys Evans. He was a real character.
When we arrived for class, he was always sitting at an upright piano in the room. He’d play ragtime and jingles (that he claimed he’d written himself); one in particular was titled “Queenie in Her Bikini.” (Try getting that past the school board today, folks.)
Mr. Evans had slicked-back dark hair and glasses with thick black frames. Class never formally began until he stopped playing the piano, closed the keyboard lid, and sauntered over to the lectern.
Our assignments were usually due by the next class. Since I was already creating short stories on my own, I loved writing “descriptive narratives” or “dialogue between two characters.” One such assignment came back with a bright red A+ and a note at the bottom: “You have a talent, Mike, a gift for expressing yourself with words. Keep developing it. I know you will make good use of it for pleasure as well as for your work. You have some fine writing here for an 8th grade assignment.”
Mom proudly affixed it to the refrigerator, where it stayed probably well into my high school freshman year.
The positive reinforcement continued with a junior-year class called “Literature in the Real World” with Duane Eide. Eide assigned us a personal narrative, so I wrote about a snowy walk out on frozen Lake Minnetonka to an abandoned cabin, where my brother, a friend and I found some old tintypes. “Your descriptions are vivid and interesting,” Eide wrote. “Your last short sentence really gives your narrative a clear purpose!”
However, once I’d made it to senior year, McHale raked my writing over his searingly hot editing coals—something I thoroughly resented.
I needed some insight into what may’ve been going on, so I interviewed Jack Schlukebier, a retired St. Paul Central High School English teacher.
I’m grateful Jack took the time to talk with me. We chatted on the front porch of his Summit Hill home on Wednesday, Aug. 5.
Taking puffs from his pipe, he said that 10th and 11th grade is a critical period for kids’ writing. His statement really surprised me, so I asked him to explain.
“It seems,” he said, “like that’s when it’s either the maturity or experience, or it’s the kind of literature you’re reading, that’s when it gels for those who are going to really get into it. By senior year, I never saw much development—saw a lot of refinement, maybe … but kids then are going to catch on to [metaphors]—well, English teachers love metaphor. We just think that’s the coolest thing in the world. That’s when it sort of catches on. They’ve been using them all their life, but they don’t understand … by senior year everything is more mechanical.”
I explained to him how criticism from McHale weighed so heavily on my mind at the time. “You needed that affirmation from the right guy,” he said flatly.
But I was only a kid! It’s easy to forget what it’s like under a teenager writer’s skin. Jack gave me the view from the business side of the chalkboard:
“The other thing I’ve noticed in high school writing, and it was true in junior high … there’s so much angst. You know, and self-pity. These kids would do personal narratives, just reams of paper about how the world is screwin’ them. And they just can’t see past that. When it came to expository writing, or even trying to write a fictional piece, many students could never become somebody else—you could tell it was always about them. And being able to develop a persona, as a writer, for your story, is kind of a difficult concept.”
I asked him how a teacher could best help a young writer develop a persona, get into the skin of a fictional character. Could it be through emulating a writer who’s already doing that?
“I think you hit it,” Jack said. “The kids who are good writers—and I think this is true for adults, too—are avid readers. You’ve got to get outside of yourself and into another character in a book or place. And when you can do that, then I think you can write. But the kids who were not good readers … I mean, they could put together a simple sentence but it never became a character—or something other than their angst,” he laughed, “My God, the angst! Give me a break.”
In one of my last Advanced Composition classes, McHale sent back a descriptive narrative I’d written about the first date with my high school girlfriend Kim—finally with an A-.
“You show a sharp eye for detail,” he noted on the back of the assignment. “Your style is not opaque at all—it’s most transparent. I enjoyed your paper.”
Whew. You really ran me through the mill, Mr. McHale.
And I wish I could’ve seen you one last time.
Just to tell you how grateful I am that you did.