Today I thought of my favorite high school teacher, Miss Harry, who taught 11th grade English. During one class, she chose to read aloud the assigned descriptive essay I’d written about my Mom’s lovable, colorful cleaning lady. My classmates laughed and sighed in all the right places, so the singling out of my work ended positively.
But Miss Harry’s simple critique affected me more than I understood at the time. “You have a knack, Sally.”
From then on, I fell in love with words. Innocent that I was, I took Readers’ Digest vocabulary quizzes and tried to use those words in my writing. The results were mixed, at best. The ones that pain me most even to this day are “the cursory purgation,” used in a note to my episcopal minister after a meaningful talk we’d had. He couldn’t restrain himself from laughing with my dad about it, and the affectionate ridicule I endured is still a vivid memory.
Nevertheless, I was drawn to words and Miss Harry’s class. But the water ballet’s show was coming up Thursday and the chorus final production the next night and endless rehearsals beforehand, and all our short story summaries for Miss Harry were due Friday. She would choose only one of ours from each row. I feigned illness that day, a huge accomplishment with a nurse as mother, only to learn that so many others did the same that Miss Harry wanted everyone’s collection of summaries on Monday. Saturday and Sunday, I hardly slept. I read and wrote. On Monday morning, I still had one story to read and review.
“Lee,” I whispered. “May I see what you wrote for the last summary?”
I skimmed it and used my own words.
At the end of class a week later, Miss Harry stood at the front of the room with a pinched face and our reviews in her hand. “I was very disappointed at the cheating that has taken place in this class.”
“What can she be talking about?” I wondered, trying even to fool myself.
At the top of my paper, she’d written, “Sally to Suzanne to Lee.”
Turns out that Lee had misunderstood a plot point, and Suzanne, who had also borrowed from Lee, and I had penned the exact mistake. Pretty transparent cheating.
As the students exited the room, all murmuring, I sat stricken in my seat. I somehow stood and headed toward Miss Harry’s desk, but my Civics teacher had come in to speak to her. I trembled and fought tears so conspicuously the man stopped talking and hurried out of the room. I managed to confess my crime before giving way to hysterics.
Miss Harry said, “Ah, Sally. You’ve done something wrong,haven’t you?”
“But you’ve admitted it. And, for that, in my estimation, you’ve gone up a notch.”
And that was it. No harping. No punishment. In my two most important interactions with Miss Harry, she’d used monosyllabic words, “knack” and “notch.” But she’d shown me that brevity, freshness, precision, tempered with warm regard cut through all the B.S.
At the time I didn’t realized I’d just had a mini-lecture in writing well. I only understood that I’d been caught up short and vowed never to cheat again. But years later I came to know that Miss Harry had a profound influence in my teaching, writing, and all my relating to others.