Monday, November 30, 2009


I love Garrison Keillor's quip: "The English major is the guy behind the counter who says, 'For whom is the cheeseburger?'." I get the joke, but I'm a grateful English major nonetheless. I started college as a drama major. (I learned how to glide -- not stride -- across the stage. Don't laugh; I'll show you sometime.) Then I switched to Biology (which, unfortunately, included chemistry), and landed at what had been my real love all along: English. English was my first love because of Miss Zamow.

There are four distinct encounters with books and reading that I remember fondly, even excitedly, as I re-trace a literary path that has carried and continues to carry me through the world. The first is the "Alice and Jerry" series in first grade. (Yes, I know, everybody else was reading "Dick and Jane." Any other Alice and Jerry readers out there?) Did I actually find the backyard and neighborhood adventures that they shared with their dog, Jip, to be interesting -- sometimes fascinating? Yes, I remember that I did. But the series really took off for me when their neighbor, Mr. Nightingale, was introduced. He traveled all around the globe, and (except for the fact that I did not yet know the word) seemed very "worldly-wise." I hope that I was an advanced child, but I think the phonics-heavy (and, yes, fun) three-to-five-word sentences of "Alice and Jerry" taught me how to read.

The next is my mother's bedside reading of Tom Sawyer. I think I was eight. What is there to say? What eight-year-old boy wouldn't love this adventure. At that age I surely must have been reading "chapter books," but perhaps I remember this as the first book I "couldn't put down." And it undoubtedly forms a memory because of the comforting presence and voice of mom, there at my bedside. I entered parenthood with the organic understanding that this is what a parent does, as surely and naturally as providing food and shelter: He reads to his child. Especially at bedtime. When I talk to parents about this, I always say, "Dads, don't let mom have all the fun." (More about reading with our kids in a later post.)

In ninth grade English class we read Moby Dick. Now, I just re-read Moby Dick and found it magically wonderful, but it caused me to wonder, "Did we really read the unabridged Moby Dick in ninth grade?" I don't know, but it worked. (Plus, I liked the teacher. She was kind of pretty and was known among us kids for never wearing the same outfit twice -- ever. I guess at some point someone started to keep track.)

Miss Zamow (zay-mo) wasn't pretty. (Sorry, Miss Zamow.) She was simply a great teacher. An English major should try to avoid these cliches, but she opened the world of literature to me. I can't cite the date, but I can see the second-floor corner classroom at Rapid City High School and I know the setting and circumstance: It was a circle of about twelve chairs, and in that circle we talked about the book we were reading, The Return of the Native.

That's it. Sitting in a circle and talking about a book (with Miss Zamow a part of the circle). That was something I'd never done before, and I've loved it ever since -- sitting in a circle and talking about books. Perhaps two other contributing elements: It was Advanced Placement English, so we had the class size and ratio (not to mention, interest) that every classroom at every level should have, and Miss Zamow loved the books she was introducing to us, and, although she was rather non-demonstrative, she loved being part of the conversation and she liked us.

(She had a wit that was so dry as to be non-existent, but it was there -- always delivered with a completely straight face. Once, I made a wisecrack and she said -- straight and unsmiling as ever, "I see we have a clown in our midst," and then continued on to the next point. Of course that made me love her all the more.)

I was exposed to a tremendously talented and lively faculty of English professors at the small midwestern liberal arts college I attended -- and many more circles. But I never experienced a more enjoyable or instructive class than AP English with Miss Zamow. Did I ever, once, go back to Rapid City High School and tell her? Of course not.

I would love to sit in one of those circles with you (perhaps now with a glass of wine) and hear stories of your "Miss Zamow." Alas, our virtual circle will have to do.

(P.S. Have you observed, as I have, that our best teachers often have some sort of eccentricity about them?)

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