I gazed at this arcane and unfamiliar symbol, written thoughtfully on the back of my first essay in AP English, in a similar state of surreal dejection as I would later view my early decision rejection from Penn.
Dr. Graham was an imposing teacher. She told us that she was getting us ready to write at the college level, and would grade us accordingly. Thus an “F” was not the lowest possible grade, but rather she would add extra minuses to help us know precisely where we ranked in terms of the reality of writing at a college level. My first shot across the bow had garnered an F plus (or should I say “minus”) five, count ‘em, five minuses.
We had read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and I was lost-er than Jed Clampet by the time the turtle was crossing the road around page one. Looking back, I was even more turtle-like in my ability to read metaphors than the Joad family was fleet of truck to get to the point, much less California—a slow starter and late bloomer moving perpendicular to life’s general flow of action.
I had meant to write about how the crossing to California from Oklahoma was akin to Moses crossing the desert with his lost and exiled tribe. This biblical trope was news to me, but I picked it up from the class lecture and thought I’d run with it. Being a poor speller I had no idea that I was writing an essay about a humble plant that grows on the north side of rocks and trees that was nonetheless crossing something akin to cake or pudding.
Looking back I imagine that Dr. Graham might have had a mirthful chuckle in bed with Mr. Graham, a smart-person merry joke that I might now, all these decades later, finally be in on. She might just as well have been aghast about what she was up against, a scant year to get even the most unpromising of us ready for a potential life at least informed by letters and possibly even the mind.
I’d spent the previous three years of English wavering between wondering what I was doing in the honors track and fantasizing about the cutest of the bookish girls. Now I was like silly putty in a playdough fun factory, being extruded into the realm of critically reading and discussing literature.
One of the great things about Dr. Graham was that, if you were willing, you could re-write your paper as many times as you liked, getting draft after draft of carefully noted comments and corrections, slowly inching your paper out of Dante’s lowest level of sub-writing toward purgatory and perhaps even beyond.
My turning point in class was a month or so in when we were reading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. While the smart kids seemed to grasp prose, everyone seemed mute in the face of poetry:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
“What could this mean?” inquired Dr. Graham to all the eager kids, dreams of Yale and Princeton dancing in heads and furrowed brows and nicely crossed ankles under tables in the carpeted little room just off the administrative offices. Silence.
I ventured a hand into the air, my first tentative utterance of the year. I said something about seeing this like a movie, about picturing an operating theater (I had seen one in London and it had freaked me out and made me think about my best friend dying on an operating table in real life, but I didn’t mention any of that) and vaguely guessing that “ether” was like drugs and that this poem was surreal (this I knew something about, but didn’t go into that either). Frankly, I don’t know what I said, but I remember that the poem moved me and drew me in and made pictures come alive in my head.
And I remember Dr. Graham’s eyes come flashing to life, locking into mine as I spoke; her gaze, pleased and surprised, reflected something profound to me: I see you are intelligent in there, I see you have a creative mind.
She was austere, and yet I loved her. I knew that there was a playful spirit and a deep heart stirring at the same time that her exacting pen performed necropsy upon vivisection of my primordial attempts to make an essay.
Later she let me make a film, instead of write a paper, for our big project (and to this I attribute the birth of my dream to not just make super-8 movies but to dream big about making “real movies”); and even though I have yet to make any sort of big movie, and following that passion was like an etherized ill-fated love affair fraught with despair and alienation, but even after human voices woke me I did not quite drown, I remember everything and came back with real love and not celluloid.
Through Dr. Graham, I came to know what a great teacher can do for someone, and while it’s the corniest sort of thanks, I want to thank my AP English teacher for teaching me how to write, how to enter into the world of words and find there feelings, imagery, love, angst, friends, generosity, transformation, spirit and perhaps even a bit of the divine.
After many tries I was thrilled to hold my paper, now about Moses in the desert, in my hands and gaze upon an “A.” It was followed by five minuses: “A- – - – -” and it was clear that this was as close to any promised land of good writing as that jalopy of an essay was ever gonna get.
But there would be time that year for many visions and revision, although there was taking of neither toast nor tea and, alas, I went off to college still a bit at sea. Over the years, however, Dr. Graham’s encouraging and enlivening spirit bolstered me to trust that I had a voice and a point of view, and that writing truly is re-writing, and that even the less gifted tortoises just might, like Yertle, eventually develop something to say and the ability to say it.
While Proust fetishized his Madeleine, and Cannery Row’s Doc had his beer float, I might yet have to have mosses some night to make just my dessert. (HBDC)
So, Thanks Dr. Angela Graham, thanks to all the great teachers—our unsung culture heroes.