Hey, Mrs. Rawlings! I’ve Got a Book Coming Out!
Thanking my teachers for Teacher Appreciation Week
In less than two weeks I’ve got a book coming out from a major U.S. publisher. (The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration, from Regnery, out May 21.) Me. A book. As in sentences and paragraphs and chapters. And the page with long string of numbers from the Library of Congress. A somber scholarly-looking picture on the back.
Somewhere, I suspect my 11th grade English teacher Mrs. Rawlings is smiling. She’s part of the reason there is a book. And not because her forefathers immigrated to this country. And certainly not because I was some writing phenom.
Mrs. Rawlings was a very funny lady. Sharp-witted. A prankster. One day early in the semester she was dropping graded essays on our desks. She stopped at me and said “You know, you write very well.” I thought she was joking. I actually sat there silent, looking up at her, waiting for the punchline. But there was no punchline. Maybe a bit of surprise in her voice, but no punchline.
“You know, you write very well.” I had never heard that before. With just that one line, something stirred in me. A fire was lit. By year’s end I had written my first novel! Well, not quite. Actually, not anywhere near it. It’d take a couple years before writing started to take hold. And a bunch of years of being paid to write before I accepted the idea that I was a writer. (An idea still being shattered every time Stream guru David Mills publishes a piece.)
However — and in all seriousness — Mrs. Rawlings sowed a crucial seed. With that once sentence, that one recognition that I could put words together in interesting ways, my self-perception shifted. Thank you, Mrs. Rawlings! Your encouragement set me off on an amazing journey.
My fifth-grade teacher Mrs. Pease was no spring chicken. But she was as wise as an owl and as curious as a puppy, and as inventive as an Edison. She injected creativity in the classroom, far beyond creative writing or the arts. She brought originality to everything we studied. Her teaching methods were out-of-the-box. You could say out of this world. She once had me go sit in the hallway and read Erik von Daniken’s Chariot of the Gods; a best seller from the early ’70s explaining how alien races visited earth. Oh, yeah. Let the normal kids read Tom Sawyer.
Mrs. Pease would lug us through the woods behind Rosecroft Elementary. She’d have us stop, and look at the trees and the brush upside down. She said our eyes aren’t used to the view so they work harder, revealing more of nature’s wonderful detail. Try it! It works. What better training for a future comedy writer than learning to think out of the box and upside down?
What I remember most — aside from her frazzled grey hair, glasses and waddle — was the hut she had us build near the back of the classroom. The hut, which I believe had Polynesian origins, was loaded with books and art materials. “Some days you’re just not going to feel like being a part of things,” Mrs. Pease said. “If you need a break, some time for yourself to reflect, the hut’s there for you.” When you’re 10, that’s just cool. Like a treehouse at school. A boy cave. Now I see her greater lesson. Mrs. Pease saw us as individual, creative, feeling beings. Not cookie-cutter kids to be fed cookie-cutter lessons until we got old enough to be interesting.
I never ducked in the hut during lessons. However, I do remember a classmate, David, going in there. His brother had just died. That hut became David’s safe haven. He got to be by himself without being alone. His grief sticks with me, as does the dignity Mrs. Pease allowed him to experience that grief. It’s a lesson you don’t find in a textbook.
Bob Hughes can tell you about textbooks. Oh, yeah. A legendary radio executive, Hughes decided one semester to teach a class at the University of Maryland on advertising. The syllabus required two textbooks. I doubt we ever opened them.
“I’m not going to teach advertising,” Bob said on day one, “I’m going to teach you how to quickly analyze a problem, articulate the problem and develop solutions to the problem. Learn how to do that and people will think you’re a genius. They do me.” Bob had the swagger of a western gunslinger and the cool of a New York jazzman.
Bob’s class was the scholastic equivalent of SEAL training. We became lean, mean, problem-solving machines. How? The Socratic method meets mental waterboarding. Bob Hughes did not answer a single question the whole semester. (Okay, maybe he answered if you asked, “Can you repeat that?” or “May I run to the bathroom?”) He would keep asking question after question and question, forcing us to wrestle for answers like Jacob wrestled with God.
The course changed my life. College became a breeze. Finding clear paths and meaningful connections amid masses of information became second nature. I would kick off my professional career interning for Bob at WLTT (“W-Lite”) in Washington, D.C., where he helped invent the Lite Rock format and the iconic slogan “Light Rock, Less Talk.” Not incidentally, I left his class being able to write advertising copy like nobody’s business.
Which gets to the last thing I learned in Bob’s class. One day he took us downtown to meet his friends at J. Walter Thompson, a major advertising firm. Some of us had taken another advertising class where the professor had declared with great academic pomposity that every single element in a commercials had been meticulously planned. Every color, every item had symbolic meaning. Indeed, 50% of our final exam was “Discuss the political implications of the following M&M commercial.” Really.
Naturally, when we were down at J. Walter Thompson we were curious. “Is it true, really true? Does everything in a TV spot have meaning and hidden meaning?!” They laughed. “Nah. Sometimes the shoes are red because that’s all we have lying around.”
What a great lesson to remember when some professor or talking head is spouting this bit of nonsense or that. Or for that matter, when I get caught up thinking I’m being clever or there’s a deep hidden meaning behind some event. Sometimes things are what they are. Sometimes the shoes are red because that’s all they have lying around.
Sometimes when someone compliments you, they mean it.
Al Perrotta is the Managing Editor of The Stream, and co-author of the upcoming Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration, out May 21. You can pre-order from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Mrs. Rawlings says she’ll give you detention if you don’t.