Dear Newsletter friends,
I hope all of you have enjoyed a great summer…oops, don’t want to overlook my friends down under in Oz… make that “a great summer or winter!”
I’m chugging away on my book “ICONS, IDOLS and IDIOTS”… and aiming at a spring ’18 release.
Thanks a bunch to all of you newsletter friends who tell me you’re waiting for it.
That’s nice to hear.
I’m just taking a break to say I miss all of you and, this time I’d like to share something from the book that’s about an everyday person who influenced me. I’m taking a chance on this particular piece.
There’s no big show biz names in it… not one.
But it is about someone who had an enormous impact on me as a 15 year old and deserves to be written about.
I hope you find it relatable and worth your time.
Now it’s back to “work” on the book … which I love writing a little more every day.
Till the next tale, take good care of yourself and each other.
Title: “William Allen Who???”
The people I admire the most are: first responders, police officers, firefighters, cancer researchers, Navy Seals… and teachers.
My wife is on the Faculty at Fashion Institute of Design and my older daughter is a gifted early education teacher, so I admit I’m prejudiced.
But think what an impact a dedicated educator can have on a young person’s shaky self-image and unfocused dreams.
A case in point is the one rare, truly positive experience I have at Ralph Waldo Emerson Jr. High in Westwood during my senior year… thanks to Mrs. Slack, my 9th grade English composition teacher.
Edna Slack is one of those wonderful instructors you never forget, who simply love teaching and her robust classroom style brims with her enthusiasm for the written word.
She’s a large, sturdily- built woman (think Julia Childs) of about 60 who, despite her generous size, moves in a particularly light- footed and deftly spirited way.
I like her on the first day. She obviously loves what she’s doing and projects a devilish sense of humor and an edgy way of expressing herself.
When two students start talking in the rear, she nails them with, “Excuse me – am I too loud for you up here?”
She hates fuzzy thinking and sloppy speech.
One day I splash into the classroom wringing wet from crossing campus in a driving rain storm.
“Wow!”, I exclaim, shaking off the water. “It is really coming down out there! Amazing!”
“No”, she responds softly. “it would only be amazing if it were going up. Down happens all the time.”
She does not suffer fools. Ever.
One particularly inept student keeps making the same grammatical mistake over and over.
When Mrs. Slack corrects him for the umpteenth time, he whines, “I’m trying!”
“Yes you are,” she sighs. “Very trying!”
She almost never instructs from the front of the classroom, preferring to stroll up and down the middle aisle while offering encouragement to all of us sitting there chewing on our pencils and searching for inspiration on the subject we’re to write about today.
Her topics run the gamut.
One day, she’ll want us to write a few hundred words about “Vegetables.”
Another day, it’s “500 words on the most interesting person you know.”
Mrs. S. constantly quotes a variety of writers from Hemingway to Robert Benchley.
Mark Twain to Art Buchwald. Alexander King to Harry Golden.
So I opt to make her my most interesting person and pepper my piece with affectionate parodies of some of her more famous classroom quotations.
She gives me an “A” for style, but at the bottom writes. “You are a shameless young man!”
I lean on her every word and soon develop a huge crush on this intellectually vivacious woman.
I desperately want to impress her with my oh-so-earnest, and sometimes, oh-so- “purple” prose.
She quickly teaches us about the “purple prose” syndrome, and I am constantly guilty of it... but confident she will bust me every time I slip into overly elaborate verbiage.
How about this 9th grade nugget?: “the sullen night, dark as ink, has quietly descended and now he stands serenely surveying the sprawling city below him. It shimmers in the soft night breeze, sparkling like a basket full of diamonds some giant hand has strewn across a blanket of black velvet.”
She circles it and writes in the margin: “At least you didn’t make the velvet purple!”
“Slack cuts you no slack” is the mantra of us adoring students.
In another assignment, we’re required to write a composition on our hobby.
At this point I’m a big Robert Benchley fan and fashion my piece after his whimsical, faux academic dissertations on various ridiculous subjects.
I compose a mockingly somber and pedantic treatise on…“The Art (and it is an Art!) Of Comic Diving.”
I emulate Benchley’s, mock erudition and in describing a particularly tricky dive, I warn that “one should be exceedingly cautious when executing this particular maneuver. If one executes said maneuver improperly, upon landing one will experience a decided inflammation of the gluteus maximus… and other highly sensitive and vital areas.”
Her comment in the margin: “Fun!”
By the semester’s end, I have diligently written a great many ambitious pieces for Mrs. Slack’s class and she is unfailingly complimentary and, above all, encouraging of my efforts.
Particularly about one homework assignment I work on like a dog for about a week.
The task assigned is to write a thousand word commentary on the 1948 Presidential election between Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Thomas Dewey.
I decide to compose my submission in medieval Arthurian verse.
“Once twas strife twixt two noble knights.
Each seeking the throne to rule…”
As the poem nears its conclusion, I describe my two political rivals entering the arena for the final, fatal joust...
“One upon a pachyderm – and one upon a mule.”
Mrs. Slack loves it, and writes “wonderful!” in red pencil in the margin next to my pachyderm line.
It’s great creative reinforcement for a kid with big ideas.
Now here I am, on this final, bittersweet day, crossing the campus to her bungalow to say goodbye.
The school tradition on the last day of your senior year is to circulate amongst the teachers you most admire and get them to sign the back of your class picture – a large, scroll-like photo that unfurls to almost 2 feet.
Most teachers either simply sign their name or inscribe a generic sentiment like “Best of luck in the future… Edna Slack.”
On this final day, I timidly approach Mrs. S. and hand her my class picture.
She smiles, lays it across her desk and thinks for a moment.
Then she writes, “I fully expect you to become another William Allen White,” and signs her name.
She hands me the picture and I mutter an awkward, heartfelt “thank you,” not able to fully express the gratitude I feel for all she has taught me.
No matter… she knows full well what I’m trying to say.
She has from day one.
As a teenager, I have no idea who William Allen White is , but as I head home that afternoon, I feel good about my final encounter with someone I greatly admire.
(I am discovering that there are all kinds of Idols.)
Later at dinner, I show the inscription to my Dad, who has a Doctorate and is a voracious reader and student of political discourse.
He immediately recognizes White’s name and, with a proud smile, informs me that William Allen White is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and humanitarian author famous for his powerful and persuasive writing.
The only thing that would have pleased Dad more would have been if Mrs. Slack had compared me to his preacher hero, Billy Sunday, the bombastic fire and brimstone evangelist who was all the rage during Dad’s time in seminary.
But still, my Father is mightily impressed by Mrs. Slack’s comment and, that evening, I am thrilled at how proud he has suddenly become of his 15 year old son.
My macaroni and cheese is particularly enjoyable that night.
Who among us doesn’t remember a teacher who gave us a pat on the back and positive reinforcement for our early efforts?
I think of Edna Slack every time I sit down at this bloody keyboard and try to tell you a story.
Pulitzer?! That’s setting the bar pretty high, Mrs. S.
But it certainly has motivated and inspired me to be my best and think big.
It’s taken me almost 70 years to get around to it… but let me finally put it in writing…”THANK YOU Mrs. Slack.” (…and all teachers.)
Maybe I’ll never earn a Pulitzer, but then again, how many hit songs has William Allen White written?
(She would have loved that last line!)