Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

In Praise of Great Teachers and Editors

What a writer really needs is a good coach.

This post was inspired by the many reflections in the Albuquerque journalism world upon the death of the legendary Frankie McCarty, whose courage in breaking gender barriers and unbending standards of ethics and grammar left a lasting legacy.

I never really got to know Frankie; she retired shortly after I joined the staff of the Albuquerque Journal. However, even after retirement, she still kept a hand in. Every so often, we at the sports desk would get a short letter from her, usually gently holding us to task for some shortcoming. The sports desk may have been a special concern for her – while all of the rest of the paper was copy-edited at the central copy desk, the sports editor at the time didn’t trust the copy desk (he was afraid someone not familiar with sports would put the Yankees in the National League), and so the sports stories were copy-edited by sports reporters and not by trained copy editors. This led to the sports desk having far more than its share of often embarrassing gaffes. Frankie, I am sure, was working hard to save us from ourselves.

But thinking about Frankie got me to thinking about editors in general, and about all of the people who have helped me to become the writer and teacher that I am today. Primarily, these people fall into two categories, editors and teachers (and occasionally both), but I realize there’s a lot in common between a good editor and a good teacher. Both are interested in helping their protégés to make the most of themselves, both as writers and as human beings.

Evelyn Vigil was both teacher and editor. She taught the first journalism class I ever took, and she showed me the basics of getting the story, and most especially, the importance of never, ever, misspelling someone’s name. Later, she hired me as a stringer for the Los Alamos Monitor. I will forever remember that braying HAW-HAW laugh of hers that thundered through the newsroom on a regular basis, letting us all know that life was to be enjoyed.

Jim Sagel was a creative writing instructor who had the ability to make his students dream. In other creative-writing classes, I’ve seen students who present their work, and then all of the other students say something like, “Oh, that’s nice,” and that’s that. Jim encouraged us to look at each other’s work more deeply and offer constructive criticism, but always to support each other. Vaya con Díos, Jim, whatever world you may be in now.

Bob Gassaway was a journalism professor at UNM who never cut anybody any slack. He always held everybody to the highest standards, even if the person in question insisted he or she wasn’t capable of the highest standards. Funny thing is, Doctor Bob was almost always right. But while being a demanding teacher, Bob was also an equal – higher-level seminars often ended up at the Fat Chance Saloon across the street, and Bob would pay for as many pitchers of beer as anybody else did.

Lynn Beene became my idol when I arrived at UNM’s main campus after two years at a remote branch. She it was who introduced me to many of the more subtle nuances of grammar. She it was who brought me into the world of rhetoric, into the ideas of language being an instrument of power, and of language actually changing the world because changing the language changes the way something is viewed, and changing the view changes the reality. She it was who introduced me to Socrates and Plato, and to Phaedrus, perhaps the greatest work of literature ever. She it was with whom I imagined rolling up our pants cuffs to go wading in a clear stream while discussing rhetoric.

And finally, the greatest English teacher of all: Elizabeth Aiello was known from the time I was a kindergartner, and perhaps even before that, as “the Wicked Witch of Barranca Mesa Elementary School.” She taught sixth grade, and everybody was afraid of her. She was mean; she had a hard, sharp face, and black hair with freaky streaks of white.

When I got to sixth grade, I was enrolled in Mrs. Aiello’s class. I discovered she wasn’t mean; she was strict. She held very high standards, higher than sixth-graders were typically held to, even back then, and most definitely higher than today’s sixth-graders. She was very big on grammar – even though diagramming, even at the high-school level, was distinctly un-trendy, she did diagramming. Through diagramming, I learned the vital skill of being able to take a sentence apart to find out what’s wrong with it. She also recognized that the existing school curriculum wasn’t challenging me (there weren’t such things as gifted programs back then), and so she helped me to create my own literature and reading curriculum, in which I chose what I read and then created reports or other projects in which I processed the reading.

Later, I grew up, went off to college, didn’t do so well, and came home, where eventually I started taking classes at the local branch of UNM. There was Mrs. Aiello, Elizabeth now, and she was teaching expository writing, and literature, and some other things. I had been going through some very tough times in my life, and she was always there, encouraging me. She never cut me any slack on any class assignments, but she always was there to cheer me on, to encourage me, to make me see that, no matter how hard things were, I really did have the strength to get through them.

Now that I am myself a teacher, I look back at the teachers I have had. I want to be for my students what my best teachers have been for me. I discover, sometimes, that when I am talking to my class, I am channeling Evelyn, or Bob, or Jim, or Lynn, or Elizabeth. I get to wondering about echoes – If I’m an echo of Evelyn and Bob and Jim and Lynn and Elizabeth, then if sometime in the future somebody’s an echo of me, is that person also an echo of the people I’m an echo of?

Yes, teaching is a way of touching the future.


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