Posted by: GeekHiker | June 16, 2008

Things Found, Part 1

For some reason, I’ve been on a real tear for the past couple of weeks. Cleaning, throwing old stuff out, opening boxes that haven’t been opened in years.

I’ll admit it: I’m a paper hog (*oink*). Not sure why, although I do know that I inherited it from my Mother. Doubtless to the consternation of my long-suffering Father. Heh.

In any case, it seems that, somehow, I end up with stacks of papers. Yeah, I’m one of those types that tends to throw it in a pile, promising myself that “I’ll go through it later” or “I’ll read through it and throw it in recycling” or “I might want to read that again one day.”

The last one of those is the worst, of course, because it never gets read… and it never leaves.

Until the past couple of weeks when, starting at the end of my cold, I did start throwing it out. Not all, perhaps, but a whole lot of it.

Part of my new found success: scanning. For example: I found a whole pile (think 1 ½ foot tall pile) of old screenplays that I’d written back in college. While I’m sure I still have the original document files on the ‘puter somewhere, I didn’t want to throw out all the copies with my and my professor’s notes. Nostalgia or something.

So, I took it all into work, scanned it all to a massive pdf file, shredded the paper, and tossed it into recycling. Even at 10 megs, it takes up a whole lot less shelf space.

Anyway, eventually I got to that box in the back of the closet. The one I’d mentioned earlier. The one that I’ve probably been carting around since my freshman year in college.

The one that I’ve opened occasionally over the years, looked at the mess inside, gasped at the horror of it all and slowly, cautiously, closed the lid on again.

This time though, I didn’t, and I was rewarded for my perseverance by discovering that the box was filled with… well, it was filled with a lot of crap that immediately went to recycling, actually.

But there were a couple of discoveries.

The first was a stack of papers from my sophomore year in high school. Yeah, that’s right, high school.

It’s all the papers from my honors English class almost twenty years ago, the class where I learned how to write.

Or, more specifically, that I learned how to write because the teacher pissed me off.

* * *

The rumor was that you were never supposed to ask why. That apparently Mr. S had a masters or PHD in English, but you were never supposed to ask why he was teaching English to a bunch of high schoolers.

Perhaps that explained the bow ties.

All I knew was that he was tough. Really tough.

So much so that when our class of 28 students was given the opportunity to leave the Honors class for the regular English class halfway through the year, our class dropped down to about nine students.

Made for a damn fine learning environment, actually. Class discussions became quite complex, with everyone having a participatory voice. On the other hand, it made the read-around of “Hamlet” a bit tough since everyone had to take on several roles.

He always graded the papers using fountain pens. Red or black ones, with a heavy ink that would practically weigh down the paper. When he handed it back to you, after making comments all over the page (and often carrying over onto the back of the paper) and giving you a failing grade, the ink was practically dripping off the page.

English Paper
Typical markings by Mr. S. on a three page paper. Note the comments go all along the side and carry over onto the backs of each page, in two different fountain pen inks!

But here was the thing: you could rewrite the paper. As many times as you wanted. And he would stay after school to sit with you, review the paper and make yet more fountain pen comments on it.

I’ll admit it: after working for hours on a paper to have it come back with a failing grade and ink dropping off the page, I was not a happy student.

I would rewrite those papers. Bring them back to him again. Have him tear them to pieces again. Then go home, humbled, and rewrite the paper again (and again and again) because, dammit, I was a good writer, no matter what he thought.

And I was bound and determined to prove it to him.

I would do up to nine drafts of a single three page paper, just to get it right. What I didn’t know at the time and through all of those efforts, of course, was that in the middle of all those comments, all that criticism, all that tearing apart of my carefully crafted sentences was that Mr. S was actually teaching me how to become a good writer.

Even more, how to write well. How to have a concise idea. A good topic sentence. How to have your ideas flow in the paper to support your topic, but without wasting space (or the reader’s time) with extra words and such.

I went on to take honors English the next year, and the Advanced Placement class (taught, ironically enough, by his wife) after that. Even passed the AP test and got to skip my freshman English classes in college. (Of course, since I suck at math, I still had to take those freshman entry-level math classes. *sigh*)

All through the rest of high school and college, I consistently wrote good work, no matter the subject. But I learned how to write in those after school sessions, sitting in a fluorescent lit classroom, watching blood red fountain pen ink flow all over a paper I’d worked my ass off on, over and over again. Listening to him tell me why a particular turn of phrase didn’t work, why what I wrote wasn’t clear, how my paragraphs failed to support my topic. Not just telling me that I was wrong, and not telling me how to fix it, but guiding me to discover how to do so myself. Helping me discover the difference between writing words that said nothing and writing words that communicated the idea you were trying to convey.

I learned how to write from a teacher who challenged me to work harder and didn’t pull any punches.

I learned how to write because I was taught by a damn good teacher.

I have no idea where you are now, Mr. S, but I thank you for teaching me how to write.

Of course I also rather hope that you aren’t actually reading the drivel I pass off as writing here on this site. Because if you are, I have little doubt that you’re reaching for a freshly filled fountain pen right now…

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Responses

  1. All that after school work shows as you do write well. You are interesting, concise (ish) and funny and thus I want to keep reading.

    I’m impressed that the paper piles are being dealt with. 🙂

  2. Oh! I do this, too. Only, I blame my Nana. She saved EVERYTHING…and now, so do I. I’ve got a few boxes like the one you mentioned filled with old birthday cards, notes from high school, etc., etc.

    I went through them a few years ago and got rid of some of the cards. I mean, really, aside from my birthday, when would I look at them again?

    Got piles of stories/poems, too. Those, I find, are harder to part with.

    Because, y’know, just because the story has been unfinished for the past 10 years doesn’t mean I won’t want to wrap it up someday 😉

  3. It feels great to have a student who grumbled and complained about how tough you were on them later come back and thank you for it. Even is you can’t find Mr. S to personally thank him it’s out there in the blogosphere and all the Mr. S’s out there reading your blog can think it was them.

  4. i believe they call us pack rats.

    i was going through a stack of papers this weekend and found a fiction paper someone else had written in college. when my roommate asked me why i had it my response was, “i always intended to read it. everyone else in the class said it was really good.”

    good for you for having a real teacher. they’re few and far between.

  5. Oh kindred spirit, when I took my college placement exams, I got a 40% on the Math and a 91% on the English. 🙂

    I have two rubbermaid boxes under my bed that were whittled down from a giant box at my parents’ house. It’s a huge task to go through all your old letters, papers and memorabilia, but definitely worth it. Good for you for getting through it!

  6. I’m so glad I am not the only one with mounds of old papers in boxes. I’ve really gotta get a handle on our papers .. ugh!

  7. Just A Girl – Thanks. I like the “ish”! *grin* Heh, the piles aren’t that big…

    East Coast Teacher – I think I’m getting better as I get older. Maybe I’ve just reached the tipping point…

    Dingo – It is cool, especially after all these years. I rather wish I could thank him, but despite much searching, he is not to be found…

    Kristin – Welcome to the site! LOL, that’s quite funny! They are few and far between; of course, as my Mother was one, I like to try and recognize them when I can…

    Mel Heth – We are kindred spirits! Glad to know there’s someone out there who holds on to a few things.

    Dobegil – Scanning helped me. The shredder too. Once it’s shredded, there’s no going back, which is a good thing.

  8. I wanted to kill my school English teacher almost every day because she expected so much of me, I thought it was unfair. But by sixth grade I could communicate decently in English, spoken and written. I have the job I have because my resume says “bilingual” somewhere, how can I not be thankful for all the times I received my papers full of red notes?
    When I graduated high school and received my diploma she stood up to clap before my father. Jeez, that still gives me teary eyes.

  9. That was fun. I actually stay in touch with my High School English teacher. She said that my writing has become more free-flowing and I’ve allowed more of my personality to enter it 🙂 She was tough, but it wasn’t honors English… we didn’t have such things in Hick Town, Idaho. So in a way, I am a little jealous that you had that, but I’ll be honest, I’ve always hated English class… but loved Mrs. Schorzman. Also, great to know that other people keep those boxes… I tell myself that my future children will get a kick out of it someday.

  10. After reading your blog, I will say that Mr. S did a fine job and so do you.

  11. Narami – Welcome to the site! That’s a wonderful story, thanks for sharing!

    Aly – That’s so cool! I wish I could find him, just to send him a thank you note, but oh, well…

    Homer-Dog – *blush* Thanks.

  12. Oh, I’ve been lurking for some time :o) I like it around here xoD

  13. Awwwwwwwwwww!!! What an incredible tribute to Mr. S’s dedication. I think he’d be incredibly impressed with how you’re using your skillz!!


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