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The Rankin file

Literature. I had one helluva senior English class. My teacher was Elaine Rankin. We were the Rankin file: the top end of the top stream in B. Frank Brown's non-graded high school, Mel High in Melbourne Florida. The streams were for sorting us by learning ability. B. Frank Brown's mission was to give slow learners a boost via hands-on help in small classes. But if you sort by learning ability you also get groups on the other end of the spectrum. We were in the far-right tail of the curve. Officially we were an American lit class. OK, plenty of fun to be had there. Here's the kicker: we were limited to antebellum. American literature 1600-1850. Elaine rolled her eyes as she told us. There are a few. The transcendentalists. Poe, Hawthorne, Cooper, Longfellow and uh… Philip Freneau. Yeah. Always a treat. More on him later.

Writing class. Elaine's mission was to teach us the art of writing. She could work with anything and still do that. In one topsy-turvy year, Elaine taught me how to write. Four days a week we had class in a regular classroom as part of a larger group of smart kids. The Rankin File was the top-end subgroup, and once a week the six or seven of us met with her for a half day honors English seminar around the big trapezoidal table in the library conference room. The other four days we did independent study in the library during our regular English time slot, digging into whatever came up in the seminar. Some of the time. Some of the time Elaine had us meet with the rest of the class for fluency drills.

Fluency drills. We did study antebellum authors, but from the very start Elaine made us write, write, write. Her key exercise for writers in training was the fluency drill. Using any given topic, you wrote for a set period of time, generally five to fifteen minutes. The fluency drill had one rule: keep the pen moving no matter what. If you didn't have anything to say, write that. If this exercise was driving you crazy, ditto. You could just write "Blah blah blah" or "Nanana can't hear you." No matter what, you had to keep the pen moving, keep writing, aiming back at your topic if you could because that would be much more interesting to read later than blah blah blah. It was an agonizing and, for me, liberating exercise.

Typing. In 1968, a keyboard version of fluency drills didn't even occur to me. That's not how you did writing. Typing was just a job typists did. But Leela nudged me: I took typing that year. No other boys took the touch typing class; why would they? They were destined to become Important Men, not mere typists. But I took typing, so I had a leg up when computers started happening twenty years later.

Chalkboard art. One advantage of meeting in the ordinary classroom was having our own chalkboard. Soon after the year got underway, a competition developed: someone would sneak into the classroom and put something funny or artistic up on the chalkboard. We had some impressive chalkboard artists among us, me not included. But I appreciated others' work. When we read Mr. Freneau's dreadful poetry, the chalkboard greeted us with a public announcement: "Philip Freneau, your poetic license has expired."

Psalm. Elaine made us really dig into the literature. We spent what seemed like an inordinate amount of time analyzing one of Longfellow's poems, A Psalm of Life. It begins:

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!—
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

It's the poem that gave us the phrase "footprints on the sands of time." It became quite the sensation in its day. Longfellow biographer Charles Calhoun noted it had risen beyond being a poem and into a cultural artifact (from the WP article). You can read the whole thing here, if you like that kind of thing. Elaine had one brilliant question for us: who are the mournful numbers? What is this poem in response to? After much pondering and digging in the library, we finally came up with what she considered the right answer: skeptical philosophy, personified in Longfellow's day by David Hume.

The real mystery, of course, is why did Longfellow care? WTF was he thinking?

MacGuffin. One day in the larger class Elaine had us write a one-line description of a character: age, gender, a couple other basic details. We passed that sheet to the next student, who added another character after reading what was there. Pass and repeat for a total of three characters, each added by a different student. We passed again, adding an object, then again and she told us to keep that sheet. We each had a sheet with three characters and an object, all added by different classmates.

The big assignment of the year was to write a story based on what was on that piece of paper. The next few weeks we did fluency drills in class on each character and the object. Our homework was to forge the drills into a story. I wrote a story based in Kenya. I had an eleven-year-old boy, and my object was a pendant. The eleven-year-old was my protagonist, a Muslim boy named Amal. Unconscious homage to my dad. He took me to Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors.

Satchel. We turned our stories in near the end of the year. Mine was a mess. A sheaf of handwritten loose sheets with text circled with arrows showing where to move it, crossouts etc. One day in the last week of school Elaine stopped me as I was leaving class, saying she had something for me. She dug into the satchel she carried books and student work in and pulled out a sheaf of legal-size paper about a half-inch thick and handed it to me. She had typed out my entire draft, triple spaced to give me plenty of room to work on it. The way you worked on drafts in the days before word processing. Even for a fast typist like she was, that was a lot of work. She looked at me over her glasses and told me it was good, very good. She had spent her hours typing up the draft to encourage me to finish it, and she didn't want me to waste my time submitting it to literary journals. Only two candidates, The New Yorker and The Atlantic. I was stunned.

Failure/success. I carried that sheaf of foolscap around for decades. I never worked on it, because, well, making a living, falling in love. I wasn't interested in being literary; I was just doing the assignment. I did recognize the quality of what I'd written. It was a good yarn with a mercilessly ambiguous ending, designed to make you feel like you'd been stabbed in the guts. Elaine failed to make me finish my story, but she succeeded in the deeper task: she made me into a decent writer.