This is from Mike Crognale’s essay about a memorable teacher from his second-grade school days:
“There are different members of the Catholic clergy. At the top there is God, everybody knows about that subject. Next there is the pope, and from what I remember back then he was basically God’s right-hand man. Below the pope you have your cardinals, bishops, and priests. Then there were nuns and brothers. Sister Mary Thomas had no business being in the same hierarchy as those generous, grateful beings. She was in her own category with anybody else who was like her. She was a small fragile woman dressed in navy blue. Her skin was transparent and covered in wrinkles. The bone structure of her body could almost be seen if it were not draped with her bruised and veiny skin. Her knuckles protruded greatly from her body as if to almost be looking at the skeletal structure. On her head she wore a navy blue bonnet which covered her nearly bald skull. To this day I have never witnessed a thicker pair of glasses than the pair she wore on her drooping and weathered face. Her overbite was filled with yellowish teeth. She spoke fiercely and loud. Every time she spoke there was a chance of heavy showers on those in the surrounding seats. She was not much taller than us second graders. Her spine was as straight as a winding road; she was hunch-backed like nobody I’ve ever seen. She walked with a limp in her all-black, no-named orthopedic shoes. Beneath those was a thick pair of wool socks. These socks and shoes were the common apparel that all the nuns wore. Another piece they all had in common was a necklace. The necklaces were tarnished silver crosses enclosed by a silver circle. These women had a distinct smell which can never be reproduced nor mistaken. It was the smell of old people, as I used to call it.”
Mike is a student this quarter in my freshman composition class. He’s a Pittsburgh native majoring in aviation management. Each time I teach composition I am impressed by how many people are good writers. Writing talent is common. The higher levels of craft are not. Mike has both going on here. What makes this passage special: the personal voice, the vivid details, and the flow. Flow derives from the writer’s emotional connection to his material, and readers experience it through his rhythmical variation of sentence content, length, and structure. Mike has a wry view in the present of what frustrated him as a boy; the flowing conveyance of both perspectives here delights.
I love to have freshmen write about some aspect of literacy, of reading and writing and learning. Many write about an adult who taught them to read or about a great book that returned them to reading. Often they write about wonderful or terrifying teachers. Interestingly, the two teacher categories often merge in the form of a teacher who was both inspiring and intimidating. But sometimes mentally ill or even deranged.
A subgenre I treasure are physical descriptions of teachers. A freshman wrote one last quarter (of a teacher she loved) that made me gag. The girls tend to be especially hard on middle-aged women who lack fashion sense and have big, oily pores. The woman Mike writes about was the cursed soul who tried to teach him to write cursive—a gradeschool milestone I’d forgotten and which brought back similar memories of trauma. And of lies: apparently all cursive teachers tell their students that when they get to middle school the teachers there are going to flunk them if they print, when in fact the teachers are grateful for any handwriting they can read.
Of course, high school English teachers also scare their students witless about the rules and rigors of college composition. Then they meet me, and I say, “Guidelines, kids, not rules . . .”