Table of Contents

The Rankin file

Miami and the Siege of Chicago. Mom and I moved from Nairobi to Florida's Space Coast in the summer of 1968. She left her sweetheart behind for a year so I could get a better education than the one I'd been getting in Kenya. And it worked, in one class in particular. I had a brilliant, engrossing senior English class at Melbourne High School. My teacher was Elaine Rankin. She called the class I was in The Rankin File: we were her unabashed favorites, the top end of the top stream in B. Frank Brown's non-graded high school. Streams were groups of students sorted by learning ability. B. Frank Brown's mission was to give slow learners hands-on help in small classes. Of courst sorting by learning ability also produced groups on the other end of the spectrum, and so we were: the far-right tail of Frank's normal curve. The official title of the class was American Literature 1600-1850. Elaine rolled her eyes as she read us the dates. But she didn't let that stop her, or us. We had to read enough antebellum American lit to tick the official curriculum boxes, but we did it on our own time, not in her class. Elaine had more relevant literature for us to read in the fall of 1968: Norman Mailer's brilliant non-fiction novel Miami and the Siege of Chicago, his account of the two presidential conventions. We used the version in Harpers until we could find copies of the book. I was entranced by that book, but I never read another thing Mailer wrote.

Writing class. Getting us to study literature wasn't Elaine's main goal anyway. Her mission was to teach us how to write, and boy did she ever. Our schedule was flexible. The Rankin File met as a group only once a week, the six or seven of us sitting with her for a half-day seminar every Monday around the big trapezoidal table in the library conference room. The other four days we either had class in a regular classroom as part of a larger group of smart kids or did independent study in the library during that time slot, digging into whatever came up in the seminar. On days we were with the larger class she had us all doing fluency drills.

Fluency drills. Elaine's key exercise for us writers in training was fluency drills. Using any random topic as a starting point you had to write for a set period of time, generally five to fifteen minutes. There was only one rule: keep the pen moving. 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. Just keep the pen moving, aiming back at your topic if you could because that would be much more interesting later on if you had to edit what you'd written. Every now and then she'd make that call. It was an agonizing and, for me, liberating exercise. Liberating because it short-circuited my mental noise. My pen kept moving and my thinking was no longer in charge; writing was just body motion. Now I see it as a portent of things to come; back then it was a sure-fire way to get the creative juices flowing. I just had to put up with all the discomfort it caused. Another portent.

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 something inside nudged me and I ended up taking typing that year. There were no other boys in my touch typing class; why would they learn to type? They were destined to become Important Men, not mere typists. But I took typing in 1968-69, so I had a leg up when personal computers started hitting the fan twenty years later.

Psalm. Elaine did actually make us do some digging into the antebellum lit. We spent what seemed like an inordinate amount of time analyzing one of Longfellow's poems, A Psalm of Life. It's the one that 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.