In praise of English teachers

Some English teachers, anyway.

Actually, one English teacher in particular: Dudley Fitts.

I just read this short essay in Andover Magazine in which an Andover alumnus (who is slightly older than I), Tod Howard Hawks, recalled his first 9th-grade English assignment from Dudley Fitts, who turned out to be my AP English teacher a few years later when I was in 12th grade, and he gave my class almost that same assignment. In fact, he gave it half a dozen times to my class, and had probably done the same to Hawks’s class!

The assignment was this: “Write an essay over the weekend.”

The reason I say “almost the same” is that there was one small but crucial difference: the freshmen were told to write “an essay,” but the seniors were just told to write “something.” The distinction was appropriate.

Notice: no topic, no word limit, no guidance! Personally I loved the opportunity, and I took it upon myself to pick a different literary form each of the six times. One was a persuasive essay, one a personal stream-of-consciousness narrative, one a Platonic dialog, one a third-rate poem (not intentionally third-rate), one a lame comparison (not intentionally lame!) of a Beethoven symphony and a play by Sartre. I don’t remember the other one, though I probably have all of them in a box somewhere in my study closet. Many of my classmates were like Hawks, initially paralyzed by the open-ended nature of the assignment — but I was one of those who thrived on it. (I have no idea how many of us fell into each category, since communicating with classmates about anything wasn’t encouraged (not that it was forbidden), and it wasn’t in my nature anyway. Of the two classmates with whom I did discuss the assignment, one liked it and one didn’t.) In all my writing I made sure to be myself, thereby avoiding the comment that Fitts wrote on Hawks’s paper:

Be yourself: If this is yourself, be someone else.

Hawks earned a 50 (out of 100, so an F) — and learned a lesson.

The next time around he got an 87, which was an outstanding grade at the time: an honors grade that was one point short of high honors, let’s say the equivalent of a B+.

One of the reasons that Dudley Fitts was an outstanding English teacher for me in particular, though not for everyone, was that he was a frequently published translator of ancient Greek, known for his English translations of quite a variety of Greek plays and poems. I remember that when I first enrolled in Andover my mother asked me whether Dudley Fitts was still teaching there; I looked him up, confirmed that he was, and was then told by my mother in no uncertain terms that I should be sure to take a class from him. Since Andover at the time had a process allowing students some (limited) choices of teachers, I made sure to do so — and I have been grateful ever since.

Addendum: Considering that my two major academic interests were and still are math and languages, it is curious that I consider the two best classes I took at Andover to be AP US History and AP English. Maybe it was because of the teachers, maybe it was the level of the academic demands, maybe it’s a mystery. I do like mysteries.



Categories: Teaching & Learning