Who was your best writing teacher?
When I meet old high school friends, we all agree that we were lucky to have had great high school teachers. The legendary teachers were English staff.
We benefited from the days before women had a wide choice of jobs — some very talented and brilliant women taught. Now, those same women might be CEOs or lawyers, professors, or doctors. Our teachers may not have known they were preparing the next generation of CEOs and lawyers and professors and doctors, male, and female.
Mrs. Miller taught us the nuts and bolts of sentence construction, sentence diagramming, paragraphs, and outlines for essays. Ouch, not very much fun unless you become a grammar and writing nerd. I still count her as the teacher who gave me the bedrock.
Mrs. Miller taught us the logic of writing, spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and what we needed to learn by rote.
She used colored pencils for correcting our papers. When we were in the punctuation part of the curriculum, she might use an orange pencil to circle or correct each punctuation error, letting other mistakes go. Likewise, in the grammar section of our studies, she would use a blue pencil to correct all our grammatical errors. Our final essays got worked over with all the colored pencils.
I found it an amazingly disciplined way to learn. And it required a great deal of time and effort on her part. She spent a lot of time correcting our papers and helping us learn the fundamentals of writing.
While we may have Grammarly today, I am glad I had Mrs. Miller those many years ago.
I remember she also modeled an unrelenting curiosity. “Are you taking Horticulture next semester?” she might ask a random student. “Why not?” as if horticulture would be a default selection. She asked us to question assumptions. She questioned ours, about almost everything. She asked us to think.
The logic portion of her course required us to cut out examples of illogic from magazine advertisements and illustrate the various ways the marketing failed the logic test, even if it appealed to snobbery or other emotional triggers. It helped us be more rigorous in writing our assertions. She taught us illogic, she explained, because it was easy to find examples. We would learn what Not to do.
After the fundamentals, then we could soar with the poets and novelists, and short story writers Miss Johnson taught in her senior class.
Miss Johnson introduced me to the canon.
I learned to love T.S. Eliot, W.H.Auden, Thomas Merton, and others. There were some women, but not as many as later. It was an irony that great women taught us from a mostly male point-of-view.
Another friend reported that she used the pyramid style drilled by our journalism teacher in her later museum work. The explanatory placards, museum exhibits, and catalogs benefited from the inverted pyramid style of presenting the most important information first.
Another high school friend became a lawyer based on the confidence she learned in speech class. She became proficient at crafting convincing arguments, citing experts, and thinking on her feet.
Community colleges or higher education or other venues or people might be the foundational inspiration for others. Another friend who moved a lot with her military family did not stay in a single school district for many years. Her mentor was at a community college, and he inspired her career.
Although I did not teach formally, I looked at coaching and educating as my primary roles as manager.
I enjoyed developing staff the most of any of my tasks, enjoyed conducting training in-house or at conferences. I taught grant writing to many people, preferring to train my own writers versus hiring from outside the agency.
A successful grant application demonstrated the commitment to the social purpose. That zeal came through the writing was a subtle difference difficult to copy as a contracted writer. As I explained to many people over the years, if you could write a good school essay, you can write a grant application. The passion for the work itself was more difficult to teach, although the language could be coached.
I also wrote annual reports, newsletters, and professional association magazine articles. Many readers may have written a great deal if they had office-job work and bemoaned the waste of yet another report or explanatory memo. It all is contributing to thinking, crafting, and writing clearly. It is all training: how to explain a complex subject, and how to persuade a CEO to prioritize your issue.
Last, I wrote compelling testimonials for the staff or others up for awards or promotions or who needed recommendations. I knew that the difference in who won an award could be determined by how convincing the application was, not the fundamental worth of one candidate vs. another.
So, here is a toast to writing teachers, whether in English Departments or stops along the way. Writing is a tool, a craft, a gift, a voice, and a discipline.
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