Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

English 101

Our son told us the other day that he's going to be teaching a couple of sections of freshman English at the University of Akron next fall.  I told him he now made the seventh generation of our family who had joined the high-salary, high-respect profession of teaching.

I took my own freshman English course (English 101) in the summer of 1962, right after I graduated from Hiram High School.  My parents thought it would be a good idea to give me a kind of "head start."  I think they also know that I had been a little, uh, inattentive during my high school years (well, inattentive to academic matters, for the most part).  And I think they also knew something that I didn't discover until I was well into the course: Virtually all of the other students were repeaters.  They'd failed English 101 the year before and were trying to get themselves back on schedule to graduate.  Failed English 101.  I wonder ... how common is that these days when the average college grade is a B+ (or A-?)?

My professor that summer was Dr. Charles F. McKinley, a wonderful man from whom I would eventually take several more courses (once I figured out I was going to be an English major).  He was patient with us on those hot summer days in old Hinsdale Hall--no A-C.  He was especially patient with me, for I think he recognized very quickly that I was about as naive a reader as I could be.  I had had very good--even excellent--teachers at Hiram High School (Mrs. Browning, Mr. Brunelle), but I had not exactly knocked myself out to do all the work.  I was in high school to prepare myself for Major League Baseball and (during the off-season) Broadway.  And, of course, to discover the Meaning of Love.  I failed in all the above.  I was not nearly talented enough for the Tribe or Broadway; I was too hormonally saturated to discover anything about Love.

Later, Dr. McKinley would become a good friend--a colleague for Joyce at Hiram.  He wrote recommendation letters for me, attended speeches I gave--invariably telling me I'd gotten into the B+/A- range.  High praise from him.  His ashes are scattered near the Episcopal Church, not a hundred yards from our house.  In our garden are growing some daylilies from his garden.

We used two books that summer--I still have both.  One was an anthology: Interpreting Literature
 (Revised), Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1961).  It was divided into genre--Biography, Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Essays.  Among the works we read--"The Killers" (Hemingway), "Young Goodman Brown" (Hawthorne), poems by Frost, Housman, Dickinson, Stevenson ("My Shadow"--a poem my grandmother used to recite to me), R. Browning ("My Last Duchess"), Tennyson ("Ulysses"), Wordsworth, Whitman, Shakespeare, D. Thomas, E. A. Robinson, Poe, Coleridge, Longfellow, Blake, Bryant, Yeats, Shelley, Auden, Masters, Spender, Emerson, Gray, Keats, Kipling, Jonson.  We read Macbeth (which I'd read only months before in high school; I liked it not a whit more that summer than I'd liked it at HHS) and The Glass Menagerie.

I have only flashes of (bad) memories about our discussions in class.  I was relieved at the time to discover that everyone else was as clueless as I, as silent as I when he asked a question.  There's comfort in that, realizing that you're in a room with people who share your deficiencies.  I don't think Dr. McKinley cared too much for discussions, anyway.  What he really liked to do in class was read aloud--and he was good at it.  I can still hear his deep, intelligent voice reading "My Last Duchess" and "Ozymandias."  I cannot read those poems now without hearing him.

And as I look over that table of contents, I realize that I've taught many/most of those works myself--and have memorized virtually all of the poems.

I remember only one of the several essays we wrote: "The Artist's Concern for Human Values."  I had no idea what "human values" are, so I asked my mother.  Who tried to explain.  I wrote something, filled a couple of pages with drivel, which failed to impress Dr. McKinley.  I saved most of my college papers; that one, however, is gone, and is now rotting in some landfill somewhere (it was rotting before it entered the landfill).  I hope no archaeologist ever discovers it, tries to infer from it something about 18-year-olds in 1962.  He/She won't be impressed.

The other book we used was a grammar and usage handbook--a blue book I cannot at this moment find.  I used it for years, kept it on my shelf.  (Maybe Joyce has "borrowed" it?)  We did regular exercises in that book, most of which gave me little trouble, principally because I'd grown up with a mother who was also an English teacher--and with an older brother, Richard, who'd read every book ever published by the time he was seven and who delighted in editing my every word, even before it had finished its passage through my mouth and out into the air.  (No wonder I stuttered!  And still do, when I'm nervous.)  I didn't really understand a lot of the rules, but when presented with a choice, I just tried to remember how Mom and Richard would say it.  If I remembered correctly, I got it right.  It wasn't until some years later--teaching grammar and usage myself--that I began to understand what I was doing.

The course, I think, was six weeks long.  Grades came in the mail.  Mine came.  B.  I was ecstatic.  I can do college work!

Next time--My own (single) experience teaching freshman English, Kent State University, Spring 1982, almost exactly twenty years after my own experience as a student.

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