INSPIRATION   Graduation speeches often acknowledge inspirational teachers.  A man recalls the steely grit of the small town historian who taught him how to understand the world.  A sculptor thanks her art history teacher for introducing her to beauty.  A scientist recalls the first thrill of discovery at the elbow of his high school chemistry teacher.   Now that I spend hours arranging words as an aspiring writer, I credit an English teacher, Mr. Elliot, as the most inspiring instructor I never had.  (That is not a typo). Due to the deterioration of Philadelphia’s public schools and my family’s disinclination to move, it was deemed necessary to enroll me in private school in the seventh grade.   After considering the local choices, most of which were objectionably religious and/or all-boys, we selected Friends’ Academy.  Nominally Quaker, the co-ed school was effectively non-sectarian.  The administration strove to promote every liberal ideal, including open-mindedness and inclusivity.  Who could object to that, especially during the tumultuous Vietnam War years of 1968-1974, when I attended? In practice, openness to all ideas meant my classmates were encouraged at every opportunity to be non-conformists; in their non-conformity, they achieved near-total conformity.  In retrospect, I was the one who was “out there,” wearing my hair short and my shoes on, forsaking protests for baseball, and attending classes alone on school-sanctioned “cut-days.”  I felt that my parents had paid for me to attend school, not to walk aimlessly around the quadrangle holding a sign.  I felt apart from my classmates, not yet able to pride myself as a person who did not succumb to peer pressure.  On the social level, for all its openness, I found Friends’ Academy oppressive. Despite my sense of social alienation I embraced the school’s shaping of my intellectual life.  Environmentalism resonated with me through an introduction to a ground-breaking (in 1969) recycling program.  Small class-size encouraged immersion in subjects like music theory and art that propelled lifelong interests.  Surrounded by wealthy classmates, I learned to detest hypocrisy, observing with a gimlet eye the conspicuous consumption of rich, Rolls Royce-driving bleeding hearts.  Having it both ways, I decried pandering when other bleeding-heart families steered faux-modest, Volvo hatchbacks with Gene McCarthy bumper-stickers, to and from their “Main Line” estates.  Certainly not perfect myself, I indulged a Holden Caulfield-like disdain for phonies.  After all, no book appeared so consistently on the summer reading list as “Catcher in the Rye.” The majority of the teachers at Friends’ Academy were superb.  I recall with particular admiration the ninth-grade teacher of a course called “Propaganda.”  Mr. Prager lasted only one year on his penurious salary, but left me (for better or worse) with a lifetime of skeptical political insights.  In tenth grade, Mr. Goldsmith taught medieval history so vividly one felt the tip of the lance when he described jousting.  Mr. Groff, dressed daily in his frayed 1933 varsity jacket, made participation on Friends’ Academy’s less-than-stellar sports teams seem as meaningful as suiting up for the Yankees.  His never-ebbing positive attitude combined integrity and antiquity so that one felt they were part of a virtuous continuum. Why do I not mention Mr. Elliot, the man who influenced me more than any other?  In delicious irony, despite a decided inclination towards liberality, Friends’ Academy utilized a class system as though they were monarchist.  Each grade was divided into three sections.   Section 1 consisted of students who were deemed true geniuses or legacies.  All had attended Friends’ Academy since kindergarten and had Ivy League connections (including the “Little Ivy” schools of Williams, Swarthmore, Amherst, Wellesley, etc.)  via siblings, parents and grandparents.  Presumably, the Ivies also lay ahead for members of Section 1. Section 2, wherein I was placed, consisted of capable students who lacked overwhelming wealth of brains or money.  Section 3 consisted of the dummies, many of whom had wealth or legacy sufficient to gain admittance, but whose academic abilities or interests were demonstrably limited.  Section 3 also harbored athletes whose value to the school was measured in baskets scored, not Balzac explicated.  Each student in Sections 2 and 3 was keenly aware of the characteristics of his group and the absolute impossibility of upward mobility. Though some teachers taught classes at more than one level, the most experienced and legendary teachers taught only Section 1.  Mr. Elliot was, perhaps, the most accomplished of these “masters,” with a litany of awards, publications and honorary degrees generally confined to famous university-level academics.   His appearance was striking, too, with bushy black eyebrows and a full head of hair highlighting a larger-than-expected head, balanced precariously on a short, barrel-chested body.   His voice was a growl with hints of England tinged with fluency in Russian, the other language he taught.  (At Friends’ Academy, one could study Latin, Greek, German, French or Russian, but not Spanish – it was considered too easy). From my teenage perspective, I considered Mr. Elliot to be ancient, though he was probably only in his late-forties at the time.  Picture a swarthy and serious Robin Williams, his voice booming through the hallways.  Section 1 students reveled in describing lectures where he recited Beowolf or costumed himself as a peasant to perform Chekhov in the original Russian.  Recounting personally-witnessed Mr. Elliot anecdotes was an unsubtle affectation of membership in Section 1, like explaining the texture of crème brulee to barbarians eating Chips Ahoy. My exposure to Mr. Elliot was indirect.  My eleventh grade German class met in his classroom three hours each week, while his classes were elsewhere, no doubt reenacting scenes from Dr. Zhivago or building sets in the style of the original Shakespearean playhouse.  While Mrs. Springer, the German teacher, tried to interest me in the multiple layers of grammar (more words for “the” than Eskimoes have for snow) I focused on Mr. Elliot’s aphorisms written on construction paper tacked onto the classroom walls.  Each exhortation had the gravity of the Ten Commandments.  “Do not dangle participles.”  “Use parallel construction.” “A semi-colon cannot appear twice on one page.”  Basically, Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style” (also a standing member of the Summer Reading List) was reduced by Mr. Elliot to simple rules. One page, written in Mr. Elliot’s un-prettified block letters, that I immediately memorized, was titled the Black List:  “NEVER use the following words:  “Really, very, more, most, get, got, seems, might, good, better.”  From my first day in that classroom, I strove to eliminate unnecessary, imprecise fillers from my writing. Other precious pearls of Section 1 knowledge that I gleaned during German class were Mr. Elliot’s “necessary” vocabulary words.  He spread lists of SAT-type words in threesomes around the walls, such as “trite, banal, hackneyed” and “adamant, obdurate, indurate.”  I memorized these words together to the extent that I still annoy family members by reciting them on a regular basis.  They cringe if certain words are spoken in my presence because I launch into recitations that are “annoying, vexing and bothersome.” I used to imagine what it would be like to have Mr. Elliot as my English teacher.  I pictured a world of brilliant insights exploding like fireworks.    I do not claim the students in Section 1 were unworthy of their selection or that I was improperly left out.  Could I, or would I, have published a novel by tenth grade, as one of the “geniuses” did?  Did I choose to memorize the entire timetable of the London subway system, as did another?  No way.  I lacked sufficient curiosity and was resistant to learning a broad section of subjects.  If a book or lecture did not interest me, I shut down.  Literature, music and history commanded attention; science, math and foreign languages did not. Still, I was delighted when my eleventh grade English teacher arrived in class one day with Mr. Elliot in tow, introducing the elder luminary as our guest lecturer on The Brothers Karamazov.  “The novel represents the dual pinnacles of Mr. Elliot’s interests in Russian and English,” he said. My classmates seemed unfazed by the opportunity to share the Section 1 experience, but I looked forward to savoring an hour with Mr. Elliot.  “Please give him your full attention,” implored young Mr. Dorrance to the class.  I sensed his fear that we would disgrace him. Mr. Elliot strode to the front and immediately launched a rousing explanation of the author’s complex narrative that passed entirely over the heads of my comparatively disinterested classmates.  After pausing for a moment, the Great Man posed a question.  I knew exactly which section he was referencing and I thought I knew the answer.  I rarely raised a hand in class, however, and I was especially reluctant to draw attention from the man I idolized.  Yet, everyone else was sitting like lumps of clay.  Excruciating silence enveloped the room and I could almost feel Mr. Elliot’s inner-thoughts as he confronted the dullness of students not in Section 1. Finally, in stages, I raised my arm.  Mr. Elliot looked at me. “Yes?” he boomed.  “Do we have some enlightenment from the student in the blue shirt?” “I think…” I began. “Stand up when you respond,” said Mr. Elliot. I rose self-consciously, aware of shuffling around me from surprised classmates. “I think…” I began again. “Don’t ‘think’,” interrupted Mr. Elliot.  “You either know the answer or you do not.” Duly prodded and with a burst of adrenaline, I gathered the entire answer in my mind and delivered a clear and well-formed explanation. I waited a moment for my insight to be lauded.  I was proud of how fully it had unfurled from my lips.  Mr. Elliot, I was certain, was impressed.  I anticipated his broad smile.  Doubtless, he was gathering the right combination of adjectives to describe my answer, perhaps: “cogent, lucid, illuminating.”  Instead, his face contorted in a mask of anger.  Not looking at me, he pivoted to gaze at the entire class, and sputtered: “I do not accept someone reading an answer from Cliff’s Notes in response to my question.  In order to achieve anything in your academic careers, wherever they may take you, you must do your own thinking.” I sat down feeling mortified, humiliated, embarrassed. I noticed Mr. Dorrance shaking his head sadly.  Mr. Elliot proceeded to the next portion of his lecture, while I sat down red-faced, burning with indignation.   I wasn’t a perfect student; however, I liked reading novels and I didn’t use Cliff’s Notes or any other shortcut.   I may have been the only student in Section 2 who read every word of every assignment.  My disillusionment with Mr. Elliot and shame at my inability to defend myself was crushing. The only positive thing about being humiliated in front of a class of teenagers is how little they care.  I went to lunch after class in a daze.  One friend said:  “Wow, he really nailed you.” I started to explain:  “I read every page….” No one was listening.  The discussion had already moved onto the daily dissection of the Allman Brothers, the Eagles, and Van Morrison.  The private injustice done to me was already forgotten, except by me.  I didn’t encounter Mr. Elliot again.  But I took satisfaction for the rest of the school year in taking his words and rules from his walls and making them mine.   Eventually, the focus on quality words and writing Mr. Elliot taught so succinctly (concisely, pithily, sententiously) guided me through the SAT’s, the LSAT’s, law school, the bar exam, my career, parenting and writing. Mr. Elliot turned out not to be my hero, but he was my inspiration.      Exoneration, revenge, vindication.

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