I was lucky to get the job. Fresh out of college with a bachelor’s in English, a wife and two kids, I was looking for something other than seasonal construction work for a change. Somebody mentioned an open teaching position in high school English in a town on the west shore of Lake Champlain. I still can’t believe I got the job. To hold it, I had to take night-school graduate education courses at Plattsburgh, which, considering, was no problem. We rented one half of a duplex, moved in, and went to work.
Looking back, I’m a little embarrassed at the structure we imposed on the kids — grammar and usage workbooks, spelling books and heavy hardcover anthologies of short stories and poetry. I’m not sure a single one of my former students could today reliably distinguish between a gerund and an appositive. But as Frost’s Witch of Coös says, “I don’t know why I ever cared.” Somehow we enjoyed ourselves.
I got rid of the dry, dusty spelling books first of all. I had the kids keep journals and checked them weekly, not for content, but for effort. If I came across a misspelled word, I added it to the spelling quiz list, on the theory that they ought to learn to spell the words they actually used. One slightly elevated young lady (she later went to Mount Holyoke), describing a soirée at her parents’ home, misspelled “hors d’oeuvres.” When it appeared on the weekly quiz, Sam, in the back of the room, hollered, “Thanks, Holly!”
What surprised and delighted me about them was their latent creativity. Accustomed to lectures, films, workbooks and quizzes, they were nevertheless, when turned loose, geysers of new ideas. We did a unit on advertising and manipulation, which, after some introduction, I’d begun by opening a bottle on my desk, announcing that the heating contractors were concerned about air circulation in the rooms, so as soon as anyone smelled the perfume, he should raise his hand. One by one the hands went up, all the way to the back of the room. I thanked them, told them the bottle was full of tap water, and anyone who didn’t believe me was welcome to take a whiff. Thus introduced to the power of suggestion, we launched into the unit.
We took a look at everything from the charming magazine ads for the Volkswagen beetle, a little black spot of vulnerability in the middle of a white page, to the ads for Virginia Slims, with gowned models assuring their fellow smokers that they’d come a long way, baby. Then I assigned a project: Come up with a new product, design an ad for it, and perform it. It became the high point of sophomore English.
Philip Bigelow invented a new cigarette, El Lettuce (pronounced “El Letoochy’), and made several of them by drying lettuce leaves in his mother’s oven, chopping them into flakes, and rolling them in his father’s cigarette-rolling machine. In class, he encountered man-on[the-street John Jerdo, who feigned an obvious cigarette cough. “Throat harsh and dry?” he asked. John hacked and nodded. “Here! Try an El Letucce! No tars or nicotine, and great-tasting!” He stuck one in John’s mouth and lit it with a Bic lighter. John took a big drag, sucked all the lettuce out of the paper, and spewed it all over the first three rows of his classmates, by then helpless with laughter. Philip never broke stride. “There!” he exclaimed. “Wasn’t that great? Doesn’t your throat feel much better?” John nodded, and the two of them headed for the door, John still gagging helplessly and Philip still flacking: “El Lettuce! Tasty, and best for you! Try ‘em today!”
Ghislaine, who’s still on my Facebook page today, made a really nice-looking dress from newspaper, staples and some sort of glue. “If your date doesn’t work out,” she pitched, “and he’s really boring, you can always catch up on the news.”
One of my favorites was a couple of guys — it kills me I can’t remember their names now — who invented a new, improved set of brass knuckles, which they named “Cool Breeze.” They rehearsed, and brilliantly performed a due: “Cool Breeze Brass Knuckles hand you lots of chuckles. When you’re fighting rough-and-tumble, Cool Breeze helps you in a rumble. Cool Breeze knucks of finest brass! Knock your enemy on his back!” That, with El Lettuce, drew the second of the two standing ovations that day.
Another time I asked everybody to compose an epitaph on the grave of a family dog. There weren’t many of them who hadn’t experienced that awful loss. This produced the expected amount of cringe-worthy bathos, but Billy Berman (he later went to Colgate) wrote one that still rattles around in my head almost 60 years later: “Had a dog named Clyde, who thought dogs flied. Tried. Died.”
Small wonder I often look back at those years and remember them as some of the happiest of my adult life. Together, we read Rostand, Sophocles and Twain. We learned why Shakespeare used iambs and Rossini anapests. We were young and happy together. And blew dried lettuce all over the front of the room.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to the Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.