Sometimes I don't know when to keep my big mouth shut. Like, for example, the day I mentioned to Mike Thomson, Publishing Editor for the Partial Observer, that all that was really missing from this fine e-zine was a woman's point of view. He agreed and told me, gently of course, that I could step up to the plate and fill the perceived void. So, here goes the first installment in what will be a bi-weekly column.
I've taken my cue for its title, "5-6-7-8" from the music world, and it's also a nod to my birth date, although I won't reveal which way you have to unscramble the digits to get my true age. For those who may not have been indoctrinated into the fine old Southern tradition of sending every little girl through tap and ballet classes, dances are taught in sections of 8-counts, and "5-6-7-8" is the way the dance teacher counts off before you begin the next step on "1". It seemed a fitting tribute to all those dance instructors, piano teachers, band and choir directors who humored me over the years (the youth choir director at the First Baptist Church in Brewton, Alabama told me he would indeed take me with the group to Disney World - if I would only just lip-sync) and it always seems like a great way to kick off a topic, whatever that topic may be.
Nothing I write in such a public venue could be offered up without also paying homage to two incredible writing teachers. The first, Mrs. Florence Fouts, was my high school English teacher in both my sophomore and senior years at T.R. Miller High. Short in stature, Mrs. Fouts was tall in talent. She somehow managed to keep her class juggling balls of grammar, literature, vocabulary, term papers, proper invitation addressing and thank-you writing, and independent reading assignments simultaneously. To say she challenged us is an understatement – but she cloaked those challenges in a genuine love for her students and her school and we loved her back for pushing us.
I remember one day when my best friend Barbara was sitting across the aisle from me busily sewing colorful stitches on a crewel-work pillow top. While we were allowed to do such things (Mrs. Fouts never had trouble with any of her students' behavior, because she treated us as intelligent beings with our own methods of learning), I saw quickly that today was a day Barbara and I were going to need to "double-team" the notes, meaning that Mrs. Fouts was talking so fast I couldn't possibly get them all down and we needed to take turns writing down alternate sentences.
As I looked over at Barbara and whispered "Pssst…" – our universal signal for "What the heck are you doing?" – the class erupted into laughter. I knew I had missed something, but it didn't matter. Mrs. Fouts repeated the behavior that caused my classmates' amused outbreak. It wasn't that she was addressing us as "boys and girls" again; that was standard operating procedure and we had grown accustomed to it, despite the fact that we all felt that we were quite the adults and wise beyond words at the grand old age of seventeen. Instead, it was the fact that she emphasized the word three in the statement "Now, boys and girls, there are three main points to remember," by thrusting out her tiny hand over and over again – all the while holding up four fingers. We paid the price for stopping to laugh at her expense; she never slowed down for a moment and even groups of four missed some of those notes, as well as some of the resulting test items. She always had the upper hand; we just didn't realize what a gift she had given us until we were long gone from the hallowed halls of Miller High.
Mrs. Fouts has been gone a number of years now. I think of her every time I make artichoke dip in the dish she presented to me as a wedding gift. I am eternally grateful to her for putting a love of the language in my heart.
Dr. Mary Beth Culp at the University of South Alabama still impacts the way I teach today. In 1988, while searching for an elective class to complete a graduate degree in mathematics, I happened upon her writing class. It wasn't so much that I was dying to write at that point; it was more that it was offered at a time when it would fit into my schedule. I had two toddlers at home at that time and giving myself over to long periods of time to write was not in the cards.
What an incredibly fortuitous choice that turned out to be for me. Dr. Culp completely captured my attention from the first moment in her class. She didn't just hand out bland white sheets of paper with assignments that had accompanying rubrics neatly explaining the total point structure. Instead, she breathed life into every assignment by explaining it in vivid detail. The very first day, she gave us all blank lined paper and told us to write the first thing that came to mind.
I had heard that before, but I quickly learned that it wasn't just any old thing that came to mind. She punched "play" on a tape player and strains of the Star Spangled Banner jolted us all into action. I couldn't write quickly enough before the tape changed to sounds of thundering rainstorms, haunted mansion music, sweet lullabies, country-twanging guitars with heartache lyrics – in short, the tape contained a virtual library of all styles of music designed to evoke emotion in our hearts and pens. Dr. Culp's animation, her excitement over a good story, her reverence over the pain experienced by some of her previous young authors, her giddiness over bidding us adieu because she could not wait to see what we returned with – all were infectious. Each week, she had us group together to read our stories aloud to each other and offer constructive criticism. We all felt that the classes were better than paying for therapy, as we emerged feeling that we had gotten so much off our chest.
At the end of the quarter, we each selected our favorite story to include in a little pamphlet. The last day, instead of the traditional sweat-provoking final, we assembled the stories into spiral bound notebooks and decorated our covers with pictures cut out of magazines and our own artwork. I still have that pamphlet, and I still utilize many of Dr. Culp's methods with my own students. She is no longer teaching at South Alabama, but I see her from time to time as she continues inspiring students with programs such as Mobile's Middle Bay Writing Project. I hope she sees this and knows how much I appreciate her!
And, by the way, my choice for inclusion in the booklet was "The Pineapple,"
which was my first submission appearing in the Partial Observer.
This column will focus on a wide variety of topics, necessarily written from a woman's point of view. I look forward to this challenge and am excited about the opportunity.