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Motivated by mere curiosity, the other day I plucked from one of my shelves a fat book with a spine so faded that I could not make out what was printed there.  It was the first of two volumes of "The Works of that Learned and Judicious Divine Mr. Richard Hooker".  These books have been in my library for more than fifty years.  I bought them for a song in a second-hand shop in one of the English coastal towns in what now seems like another world.  Yet clearly I had too long neglected the judicious Hooker, for I had forgotten, if I ever really took it in, that this edition included a reprinting of his charming short biography by Izaac Walton.  From an early page of Walton I learned that the fair flower of Hooker’s genius, who sprang from an obscure family in provincial Exeter, might well have wasted its sweetness on the desert air had it not been for the perspicuity of a talent-scouting primary teacher.  This teacher recognized his ability, nourished it, expanded it, and set Hooker on his road to the university and scholarly celebrity.  Walton writes thus: “This good schoolmaster, whose name I am not able to recover, (and am sorry, for that I would have given him a better memorial in this humble monument dedicated to the memory of his scholar)…”

The Unknown Teacher had been a cog in the great machine of meritocracy humming away behind the flashy front of Tudor aristocracy, discovering the odd Dee here and the odd Shakespeare there.  The passage set me to thinking first about my own role as a teacher.  I would estimate, conservatively, that over my career I must have personally interacted with about twenty thousand students, and with perhaps with twenty percent of that number in some substantial or significant way.   I am not expecting that future archaeologists will find a tombstone reading “Hic jacet So-and-so, olim pupil of the Judicious Fleming.”  Yet surely there must be among so many one or two who…. But even a moment’s reflection made me realize that this line of thought was premature, and that before I could fantasize about my role as teacher I had long-standing debts still unacknowledged from my days as a student.  So I take the occasion to remember two particular people, both of them public school teachers in California, probably in different semesters of the fifth grade; and as it happens I do recall their names.   Indeed, I could never forget them.  I had a math teacher named Mr. Schwab.  He was tall, dignified, rather formal yet friendly and accessible.  He showed us the elegance of numbers and the absolutely objective, impartial magnificence of mathematics.  He lifted the veil from the tedious “word questions” in our work book about whether Jim, in pursuing his unlikely profession as picker of grapefruits, should choose to be paid at a fixed hourly rate or at a piece rate per grapefruit, given that as the day progressed and Jim grew more tired the quantity of grapefruit picked decreased at a rate of four percent an hour, and…Anyway, behind all this was a large, beautiful, crystalline edifice of thought, the music of the spheres, the universal appeal of which was irresistible even to me, a hater of grapefruit.  Mr. Schwab made me, and made me feel, pretty good at math, though even his method could not blur the eventually decisive distinction between pretty good and really good.  This took place in a very unpleasant corner of Contra Costa County called Richmond. 

Two weeks into the second semester my parents had dragged me to a little town called Taft in the San Joaquin Valley.  Our living conditions in Taft were slightly more salubrious than those we left behind, though the only time I ever heard Taft mentioned in later years was as the site of a race riot.  I think this might have been in an essay entitled “Kern County: California’s Deep South”.  In Taft I was inserted in medias res into the English class of one Miss Ihrig, a plain woman of uncertain years who wore no-nonsense shoes and, I suspect, was pretty devoid of nonsense in other aspects of her life as well.  She was less than effusively politically correct when it came to Okies and Arkies, even those who had enjoyed brief coastal acculturation in the cesspool at Richmond.  But she knew just about everything there was to know about English grammar and seemed possessed of the noble if absurd notion that the children of Taft, Okies and Arkies included, might also at least approach that blissful state.

Miss Ihrig believed that the beginning of wisdom was a command of the eight parts of speech, which she forced us to master with their bells-and-whistles elaborations.  She was particularly big on the formal conjunctive adverb.  “Words like hence, thus, then, yet, moreover, still, and so (when so means therefore) are not conjunctions,” she told us, as though warning us off venereal disease.  “They are formal conjunctive adverbs.”  Formal conjunctive adverbs were practically open invitations to the semi-colon, the most elegant of our points of punctuation, though also the one demanding the keenest authorial judiciousness.  She was also great at diagramming sentences.  Many of my classmates chafed, but I grasped behind it all wonderful symmetries like those that Schwab found in the Golden Section.  Today you cannot count on people under thirty even to know what a part of speech is.  Brilliant freshmen with pyrotechnical test scores show up on college campuses today unable to link two sentences together, let alone tell you what a subordinate clause is.  What used to be called “Remedial English,” slightly dolled up in the raiment of current cultural fads, is now a standard introductory requirement in Ivy League institutions.  But just at the point when I should be searching out the perfectly worded periodic sentence of conclusion, you must not get me started.  I’ll go quietly, thinking happily of Mr. Schwab and Miss Ihrig.

John V. Fleming

Author John V. Fleming taught at Princeton University for 40 years before retiring in 2006.

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