One of our editors is teaching a beginning reporting class over at the U, and he asked me if I'd speak to his class about the basics of good writing. I talk to college classes fairly regularly, but this isn't a talk I've given before, and I said I'd have to think about what I might say.
I started ticking off, in my head, some of the basic but important elements, and it immediately became clear that all of my points were things I had learned in my high school English class with Mrs. Eilola.
Mrs. Eilola. Best teacher I ever had. Her class was harder than the Advanced Placement English class I took, for which I earned college credit. I can't remember the name of the class, and I can't remember if I was a junior or a senior when I took it, but I will never forget her, or the things she taught me.
Her class made you work. She made you think. She piled on the assignments. She was legendary. I remember other students--smart nerdy ones like me--talking about her with a shiver of fear and dread and excitement. She makes you write essays every week, and then a term paper!
It was my first-ever term paper.
I remember her on the first day of class. She was a tiny, dark-haired woman, slender and sort of pixie-like. She stood in front of us and talked in a cheerful and friendly way and then suddenly stopped and said, "No." And right before our eyes, her personality changed. She grew fierce. It was such an abrupt change--from chattering pixie to authoritarian--that some of us giggled nervously, thinking it a joke, and she shot us such a ferocious look that we nearly melted in our chairs.
But she had done this deliberately, to show us that she may be small and cute, but she was not a pushover. If we behaved, she'd be friendly. If we did not ... well ... watch out.
She set down the rules. Nobody can come to class late. Everyone must do all of the assignments. No talking in class. We have a lot of work to do, and we cannot afford to waste time.
We all gulped, and we all obeyed.
The essays were fun. She taught us structure. Topic sentences for each paragraph, a thesis sentence for the whole thing. An introduction. A conclusion. Transition hooks, which linked the sections. I had never written in such an organized and deliberate way before. Sure, the essays all read a bit stilted, but we were learning. Much as I loved to write, up until her class everything I had written was by intuition and imitation. I had never considered structure before.
There was more. For one thing, she banned the word "there."
If we did use "there," we had to circle it in red ink and make a mark in the margin, so that she knew we were using the word deliberately and not thoughtlessly.
She taught us passive voice, and when to use it (rarely) and when to avoid it (most of the time) and why (weak; it conceals the person acting). If we used passive voice, we had to mark it in red and write P.V. in the margin.
She taught us parallel structure, a thing of beauty. When we used it, we had to underline it and make this mark: // (two parallel lines) in the margin.
We studied vocabulary. We studied punctuation. We wrote the dreaded term paper, and it was fun.
The title of this post is not entirely true; it is not entirely true that she taught me everything I know now about writing. I've had many other wonderful teachers since then--Dr. Glick; and my own father; and Susan Ager; and Mark Kramer; and Time and Experience. But she was the first person to teach me strict fundamentals, to show me that good writing is conscious, not accidental, and that every phrase, every word, every mark that ends up on paper should be made deliberately.