Allen’s personal comments

Two of my memorable teachers


As you begin writing Essay #2, here are a couple of examples from my own experience. One characteristic that “memorable people” have is that—well, you can remember them. The memories stick around for years and years (in my case, for decades).

Coach

When I attended my 20th high school reunion, I ended up chatting with Virginia, a girl I barely knew in high school, now grown to womanhood. Twenty years is a lot of time, and in that period we had both gotten through college, I had started (and ended) a career and started another, and she had married a rich man and moved to another country. We ended up talking about Coach.

When we were seniors in high school, we both took a public speaking course taught by Coach. Our high school was terrible at football and pretty good at basketball, but wrestling was THE sport to get excited about, and our public speaking teacher was the team’s coach. Of course, neither Virginia nor I had been on the team, and we had only attended one or two matches, but in our minds, our teacher was always “Coach.” Public speaking was the only academic course he taught; everything else was focused on the wrestling team. And of course, at least a quarter of the class was guys on the team—they wanted that easy “A.”

Virginia and I didn’t know anything about the wrestling connection when we signed up for the class. We just wanted to learn how to speak in front of an audience. And our first glimpse of Coach didn’t alert us to the wrestling connection either. My stereotype of high school wrestlers resembles Tom Holland—lean, hard, muscular guys, perhaps a bit on the short side, who would not look out of place on a team of acrobats. This guy was built more like John Candy. His suit jacket had no hope of buttoning around his gut, and the only thing he appeared to have wrestled recently was a six-pack of beer.

We began the course with some very brief material about giving speeches, then each of us had to do a short self-introduction. No textbooks. After the first week or so, class time was filled with Coach chattering about anything that was on his mind—how the latest wrestling practice had gone, inside jokes with the wrestlers, and a lot of buddy-buddy stuff with his stars. Those of us who were not on the wrestling team were outside the loop. We gave no speeches, got no instruction about giving speeches, had no homework, and didn’t crack a textbook (there was none to crack).

This time-wasting went on, day after day, for several weeks until finally Bill (a sweet kid with an excellent mind—and a top-notch wrestler) asked mildly if we were ever going to do any public speaking.

Coach froze and glared at him. “You want to do public speaking?” “Yes, sir.” Without another word, Coach stomped out of the room and returned with a stack of beat-up textbooks. We were to read the first chapter and prepare for a quiz tomorrow.

I’ll say this for Coach: He knew how to give tough quizzes. There were twenty questions, all demanding that we reproduce the textbook’s exact wording. Close wasn’t good enough. After the quiz, Coach filled the hour by reading the first chapter to us. The next day, another chapter, and another quiz. So it went for more than a week: impossible reading assignments, impossible quizzes that nobody was passing (not even Coach’s beloved wrestlers), and still no public speaking.

After about two weeks of this, Coach asked, “Had enough?” Bill, a broken man by now, answered for the rest of us: “Yes, sir.” The textbooks were collected, and the class went back to the old format of shooting the breeze and wasting time. At the end of the term, we all had to give a speech that would count for our entire grade.

Stanley Elkin*

Dr. Elkin showed up in my life in the second semester of my freshman year at Washington University. He was my English professor, and the whole setup didn't give me much hope. Our classroom was in the basement of one of the oldest buildings on campus, and we were stuck there for 90 minutes every Tuesday and Thursday—seven guys, one girl, and Dr. Elkin, holding class with a background noise of steam hissing from the clanking pipes on the wall. Elkin had not yet achieved the status of “recognized novelist,” and we really did not know what to expect.

The course was all about reading and analyzing fiction. We would read a novel each week, discuss it on Tuesday, and present a short analytic paper on Thursday. Elkin didn’t want long-winded papers for these class presentations. The absolute top limit was three pages. “And if you go over three pages, I will kill you.” We didn’t think that was a figure of speech. The discussions were sometimes brutal.

One Tuesday discussion stands out in my memory. We had just read yet another novel, 200 pages or so, and Dr. Elkin asked, “Well, what did you think?”

Miss Jones answered: “Well, I thought it was an interesting book, and it had an interesting plot and it had an interesting setting, and it had interesting characters…” and she went on without taking a breath for about three minutes.

Dr. Elkin interrupted her: “Miss Jones, if you do not stop speaking instantly, I shall hit you over the head with a chair. Does anyone else have anything to say about the book?”

Mr. Smith ventured: “Well, I thought it was an interesting book, and it had an interesting plot and it had an interesting setting, and it had interesting characters…”

He didn’t get as much time before Elkin again interrupted: “Mr. Smith, if you do not stop speaking instantly, I shall hit you over the head with Miss Jones.” He then filled the class period by telling us what we should have seen in the book.

A week later, we had read another novel and Elkin again opened with “Well, what did you think of the book?”

Total frightened silence.

“You all read the book?” Eight heads nodded yes. “And you have nothing to say?” Eight students shook their heads no. “Well,” he said, “I don’t see how I can add anything to this pool of ignorance.” And he left the room, barely ten minutes into a 90-minute class session.

We were stunned. We sat in silence for a couple of minutes. Teachers were supposed to fill us up with knowledge. They were supposed to value our chirpy freshman utterances. WU was an expensive college, and one student calculated exactly how much that class session had cost us. After a few more minutes sitting in silence (somehow we knew he would not return), we quietly filed out of the room.

Another week passed, and we had read yet another novel. Again, Elkin opened with “What did you think?” This time, we were all ready. We were loaded for bear. All of us had something analytic, thoughtful, interesting to contribute to the discussion.

That little episode was probably the most important piece of education I received that year.

*The next semester, when I was signing up for classes, my advisor saw that I had asked for a class from Elkin. "You're sure? Nobody else can stand him!" "Absolutely!" Years later, when I was applying for a job here at Ashland University, I mentioned Elkin in the interview, and it turned out that the Department chair had also taken courses from him. I was hired on the spot.


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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.

Revised 12/31/21 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: callen@ashland.edu.