The Importance of Being Ernest

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As a professional writer, I owe my livelihood to those who guided me in developing my talent for sculpting language into cogent and compelling prose: my English teachers. And yet, as I think back on all those who have instructed me—from elementary school, to junior high and high school, to college—I find that the English teachers I remember the best and most fondly inspired me not so much because of their work with me on the mechanics of composition, but rather because of their own passion for creativity and communication.

For a long time, I actually thought that English teachers were of little use to me. From my earliest years in school, I had a facility with writing. A blank page has never intimidated me. Stringing words together came easily to me and I received a lot of positive feedback on my writing. I was a precociously confident writer and many was the time that a paper helped salvage for me a respectable grade in a course. But for a few years I recall that each new English teacher of mine would have a particular style or approach they would demand of me. Typically, my first papers for them would get only a fair grade. But quickly, like an impressionist (I’m talking Frank Caliendo, not Claude Monet), I would master their style and do very well the rest of the way. The next English teacher I had, the same thing would happen.

I became very adept at understanding what was expected and delivering it, regardless of whether I thought it had any aesthetic or practical value. Throughout this period, I was very aware that I had my own way of writing and I never held any of my teachers in especially high regard because they always seemed determined to box me in to a rigid approach rather than encourage me to let my talent and imagination take wing. I came to think that my greatest skill as a writer was an ability to mimic different writing styles. And in fact that was a key part of a wonderful class I had with a man whom I consider the first great English teacher that I ever had: Ernest Chamberlain at Newton South High School.

Mr. Chamberlain was an odd-looking fellow, somewhat comical in appearance, and in fact he was a very funny guy. About 5 foot 7, bald on top with closely trimmed hair on the sides, a thick black mustache, thin lips, and black-rimmed glasses. He was the quintessential quirky uncle, seemingly always wearing cardigan sweaters worthy of Fred Rogers. In addition to teaching English, he was the school’s theater director. As such, he was very interested in public speaking and we would always have to read our papers aloud to the class.

As I said, he was a funny guy and he would impart lessons in the form of pithy analogues. For example, in teaching us that it is important to lead with a strong thesis that clearly communicates the point and essence of a piece, he would say, “Put the meat in the window.” The story behind the phrase is that when he was growing up, butchers would place the cuts of meat that were on sale in the front window of the store, so people walking by would know without going in what was being featured that day. By putting the meat in the window, the butcher was communicating an important message to his audience.

But the thing that made him so great to me was a time when we were studying the essay. We read numerous essays in class, always out loud. William Lloyd Garrison’s editorial on the front page of the first issue of his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, from 1831, was something he insisted we all deliver in class as if a speech. I can still recall my fellow classmates and I trying to emulate antebellum angst as we tackled such powerful prose as this:

I am aware, that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hand of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; – but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL BE HEARD.

In this unit, we were assigned to write an essay in the style of our favorite essayist. I was thrilled, not only because I knew I could copy writing styles with ease, but also because I actually had a favorite essayist: James Thurber. However, one thing Mr. Chamberlain had always cautioned us on was using humor in our writing. It’s hard to write funny, he said, and if it falls flat the whole piece will be ruined. Regardless, I went ahead and tried my hand as a humorist. In retrospect, I don’t think that what I wrote was particularly funny, but it had the element of wit (and after all, Thurber’s tales tend to make one smile, not laugh). Not only did Mr. Chamberlain give me a great grade, when I went to read it before the class, he prefaced my oration by reiterating how he had warned against humor and yet lauded me for my effort. This was a teacher not bound by his own dogma, a teacher who saw his role as providing guidance by placing a hand on your back rather than obstacles in front.

After high school, I never saw Mr. Chamberlain again, though I have thought about him often. When I started writing this blog post, I decided to Google him. I found that he died in 2010 at the age of 79. Let this piece, then, be the meat in heaven’s window, because there is a great English teacher in there.

File under English, Writing, School, James Thurber, William Lloyd Garrison

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