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There is little I love more on a cold winter’s night than an interesting book. Add a warm blanket, an excellent glass of wine, and both dogs nearby….nirvana!
I come by this love of books honestly, as my two oldest sisters read to me and then taught me to read well before I went to school. We were and are a bookish family, and powered through the books available at our tiny school. When we moved, briefly, to a small city in southern Minnesota, the public library was a revelation to all of us. “So I can take any book I want home, and when I bring it back, I get more?”
I have been blessed with many marvelous teachers. My sister Barb was my first-grade teacher, which in retrospect was probably harder for her than for me. Later on, I learned math from a wonderful woman who had started teaching in one room rural schools. My mother was one of her first pupils; before retiring, she also taught all four of my nephews. But the teacher who made the strongest and most lasting impression on me was my high school English teacher, John Cameron.
Mr Cameron was a man of stern convictions. Class should be orderly. Literature was important, and poetry especially so. Essays should be cogent, coherent, well-thought-out examples of your own ideas, not mere parroting of what he had said in class that day. His class was the opposite of easy. You’d slave over a paper for hours, only to have it returned with a sea of red pencil marks. This argument was poorly supported; that one was simple and trite. Why did you insist on using ‘very’? Such a lazy habit….Did this word represent exactly what you meant, or could you find a better one, hmmm? And couldn’t you say all this with less words? He’d asked for a three page essay, not a two page essay with a generous amount of filler.
Exasperating as this was, we absolutely loved him. After all, who else assigned the entirety of the King James Bible as literature…and made it fascinating? Who else played Beatles songs for the class, then asked us to find parallels with The Odyssey? Who else taught us that literature would change for us as WE changed?
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive at the place where we started
And know the place for the first time*
He simply loved the English language, and wanted everyone else to share in that love. Over a teaching career that spanned more than four decades, he communicated that love to many hundreds of students. He retired from teaching in 2004. In an alumni bulletin which landed in my mailbox on Wednesday, I learned that he passed away last October at age 82.
Tonight will find me curled up on my couch, my tattered copy of The Odyssey and a glass of red in hand, draped in dogs. Tomorrow will find me writing some communication or other, Mr Cameron’s exhortations of ‘Concision!’ and ‘Clarity, please’, firmly in mind.
Thank you. For all of that.
* T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets