E is for English

E is for EnglishE is for English


English Literature 12 and English 12 with Mr. Tait: highlights of my education! I still remember the second class of our required grade 12 English course. Mr. Tait returned to us the “pop-quiz” paragraphs we’d written during the first class, and announced that it was high time we learned to write! Meanwhile, in the first class of our elective English Literature 12 class he handed out the textbook and announced that we were going to experience truly great writing. This combination of classes, lasting for the entire 10 months of the old-time linear school calendar, would prove to change my whole outlook on reading and writing; and influence not only my future educational choices and grades, but also the way I would think and learn and even spend my leisure time for the rest of my life.


Now I had always done well in school; reading and writing seemed to come naturally, and this was reflected in my grades, in my consistent honour roll status, and even in my being enrolled in the “Major Work Program” for selected students in our school district who demonstrated academic excellence and potential. It was a day and age when students were still separated into academic and non-academic streams, and expectations in academic-streamed classes were, in consequence, quite high. Yet for a student like myself, school was much of the time little more than a duty accepted and worked at fairly responsibly, but without much in the way of passion or motivation beyond remaining on the honour list at the moment, and occasionally reminding oneself that a good high school education could result in acceptance to a good university and possibly scholarships as well.


And then Mr. Tait came into my life. Actually, I’d had Mr. Tait for French in grade 8, and had immediately decided French was worth learning. In fact, despite some varying French experiences in the following years, my interest in language learning never died, and indeed, much later in life, I serendipitously found myself teaching basic French. But there was a certain sense of the exotic in learning another language and tasting another culture; it had never occurred to me that there could be any special delight in learning my own language, or even learning about the culture and history that my language intrinsically reflects. Grade 12 with Mr. Tait (and concurrently, History 12, which nicely dovetailed with my English courses, and for which also I had a good teacher) changed my entire attitude.


English 12, then, started with two-word sentences, a noun and a verb. Many students complained loudly, feeling insulted, I suppose, by being treated like grade one students again. I, however, was entranced. The whole concept of being able to express oneself in colorful, interesting two-word sentences seemed to me to be both unique and challenging. Just think! Replace that boring pronoun, “she,” with an unusual name….. perhaps “Lolita” for example. Now replace that drab verb, “walked,” with a verb that somehow exemplifies in itself my whole picture of “Lolita.” Let’s see …. “Lolita dances…” Well, that is a bit better; Lolita in my mind is definitely a dancer. But still…. there must be a more exciting, descriptive word…. what verb is consummately “Lolita,” I wonder? Mr. Tait did us a favour: he introduced us to the real use of the thesaurus, the big fat one in the library that we’d never bothered to crack open before. Let’s see…. “dance….. hop, jig, skip, fling…. hmmm, not bad…. shimmy, fox-trot, jitterbug, bunny hop…. ooohhh, check these ones out! exotic!…. cotillion, polonaise, mazurka…. ah yes! I can see my Lolita now, pirouetting, waltzing, swirling, reeling…. what shall it be? Yes! for this time at least, “Lolita swirls!” Alright, what now? Adverbs and adjectives, phrases and clauses! Colourful, descriptive language….. My swirling Lolita is taking on colour and attitude….. “Saucy Lolita swirls alluringly….” Oh, the joy, sunniness, vivacity of simple words!


Meanwhile, in English Language 12, I began discovering the roots and development of this utilitarian but dull language, English. What? Did I say “dull”? Meet Beowulf, a great, brave, just hero, whose epic story was first written over 1000 years ago, in Old English, rich and alliterative: “Hwaet, we Gar-Dena in geardagum / beodcyninga brym gefrunon….” and later translated many times, bringing us the hero’s battle with “…. that fiend of hell. / Grendel this monster grim was called, march-riever mighty, in moorland living, / in fen and fastness….” And then on into the Middle Ages, with the stories of Arthur and his knights, of “….Guinevere, beautiful…. the comeliest…. With dancing eyes of grey….” and her entanglements with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Next we met Geoffrey Chaucer, bard of the 14th century, traveling in pilgrimage to Canterbury, and describing with humour and sharp observation his fellow pilgrims, “a none, a Prioresse / That of hir smyling was ful symple and coy….,” and “….a yong Squyer / A lovere and a lusty bacheloer….” and many another entertaining character and tale.


And so continued my studies. As two-word sentences developed into complex sentences, and sentences grew into paragraphs, and paragraphs into stories and essays, and then into lines of poetry, and into practical writing as well; so at the same time we explored the world of English words, produced by word-masters throughout the centuries, male and female alike. Mallory, More, Spenser, Shakespeare, the translators of the King James Version (and the writers of the original Hebrew and Greek), Bacon, Jonson, Donne, Herrick, Milton, Bunyan, Swift, Pope, Gray, Boswell, Burns, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Shelley, Keats, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Browning (Robert and Elizabeth both), the Bronte sisters, Arnold, Stevenson, Kipling, Hardy, Conrad, Masefield, Forster, Joyce, Lawrence. Mr. Tait was an old-fashioned teacher, who believed in memorization, and the words of the masters have swirled and spun through my mind down through the years, to this very day influencing and inspiring my own thoughts, my own words, my own writing, as well as my choices in reading, and the written word that I have shared with my own students and my own children.


Those lines even pop into my dreams betimes: “Tiger! Tiger! burning bright / In the forests of the night, / What immortal hand or eye / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” …. “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes / I all alone beweep my outcast state, / And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries” …. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, For thou art with me” …. “Only a man harrowing clods / In a slow silent walk / With an old horse that stumbles and nods / Half asleep as they stalk”…. No movie, no television show, no video game, however technologically advanced, has ever matched up to the pictures, the drama, the emotion, that well-wrought words, even in two-word sentences, inspire and enlighten in the mind and imagination of every reader or listener who has had the privilege of experiencing truly fine, classic literature. Thank you, Mr. Tait.


Date: November 26, 2006


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