Chris Stella, RHS 1973, gives us with a lasting tribute to Loren E. Leek.
Miss Loren E. Leek, Chapter One
If you were a Ridgewood High School Student in 1972, and were not in the mood for work during a free period, you could always amuse yourself by going to the library, to examine the old yearbooks, particularly as regards the ancient portraits of your current teachers. Usually, the contrasts were predictable – shorter hair for the men, odd coiffures for the women, less commodious waistlines for both, more enthusiasm for both. But, they always seemed to have been the people who they now were, as they stood before you, in class.
The situation with Miss Loren Leek, who was my senior year English teacher, was entirely different. In her 1963 yearbook photo, she looked entirely unrecognizable. And her name, moving forward in time, it had changed from Mrs. Pipp, to Miss Leek. The question of how this obviously prim and repressed 1963-model Mrs. Pipp creature, had become transmogrified into my 1972 English teacher, the sass-engorged, stylish, hot-tempered woman who now classified herself as a Miss Leek, was a tantalizing mystery, of the greatest interest.
She was intensely interested in the writing skills of her students. I would write an assigned paper. She would review it, and make written comments. A meeting with her would be scheduled.
And so, with a rustle of bleeding Madras fabric, and a clink of her exotic bracelets, she would tear mercilessly into my essays.
“Your paper, it needs a haircut. This idea here, it’s a ‘wow’, but you already said this, (and in a better way), in this other paragraph. And, you put your thesis in the middle of the paper; it doesn’t belong there, put it in the first paragraph, so your reader knows what you are trying to prove. And, all through the paper, you use ‘gerunds’ inappropriately. I’ll bet you don’t even know what a ‘gerund’ is!!”
Why, of course I know what a “gerund” is, Miss Leek. It is one of those little furry things that your sister buys at the Ye Towne Pet Shop. And, when she loses interest in the little gerund, your mother gets stuck cleaning its cage.
Miss Leek looked savage, but the corners of her mouth turned up slightly.
“Real cute. Regarding the mouths of babes, sometimes the gems of wisdom get stuck in the mouth, and they do not fall. Rewrite it, Mister, as of now; you’ve got a ‘D’.”
“This is the form I want. You are strictly limited to a structure of five paragraphs. First paragraph states your thesis. That is where you tell your reader what you believe. Second, third, and fourth paragraphs are where you say what evidence you have in favor of your beliefs. Fifth paragraph is your conclusion, where you tell me why you think that the things in the middle paragraphs prove what you said you believe at the beginning of your paper. This is what you have to do, so please get to work.”
Form! Structure! I could not believe what I was hearing. Didn’t this lady know that this was 1972!! All across the creative world, everyone knew that the old forms and structures needed to be broken down, burned, and discarded! This was the only way that the creativity and feelings could be allowed to flow freely, through the Universe, to reach all the people, in an unfettered way! I was angry and it occurred to me that the Severely Repressed Pipp creature of 1963, secretly lived on.
Well, this went on for months. She was relentless in her infuriating criticisms. And, I never did learn to reliably spot my gerunds, as they spent their days hopping and skipping and cavorting through my prose. But, slowly, glacially, I began to change. Sentences were re-written, and re-balanced. Word choices became more careful, at her unceasing insistence.
After many months, the Miss Leek method Just Looked Right, and I unconsciously began to adopt her many suggestions.
But, that did not make the process any easier.
Finally, one day, during one of our meetings, in a heat of frustration, I told her off. “I do not like this novel we are reading. It stinks. Get off my case.”
I received a very neutral stare in return: I, a 1972 high school adolescent, she, a gray ey’d Athena, cool of visage, and of purpose.
“Well, then. Just what is it that you do like? I don’t think that you like anything. You can go. “
And, at that moment, that was pretty much how I felt about all sorts of things.
So, she went out and found some stuff for me to like. For her students, it was onto a bus that she specially chartered, and, ZIP, a trip to The Circle in the Square Theater, at Lincoln Center, to see a world-class production of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra. It was so wonderful, I hardly dared to breathe, as the four hour drama, it seemed to go by in an instant.
Then, a quick trip to Stratford, Connecticut to see a Watergate-era rendering of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The Nixonesque main character, a dark brooding man with a secret penchant for evil, seethed. We howled like Groundlings as the codpieces moved, and the double-entendres sizzled.
But, most memorable was her multi-day in-class movie screening of Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War, end-of-the-world nuclear comedy, Dr. Strangelove.
Now, you did not always have to write a paper for Miss Leek. Sometimes, you would be allowed to create a bit of visual art, in response to an assigned literary work. A student might make a poster, or a small, Calder-like mobile, which might be suspended, near the class windows, to shine in the sun, as the elements moved. One student had mounted a dueling epee on a board, with the words “…to thine own self be true” printed in old English, underneath.
She had obviously liked that one a lot, because Miss Leek kept it untouched in her classroom, for years.
I see now that she did this to accommodate those students who were struggling with writing on some deeper level, because they saw things in visual or physical, rather than in language-based terms.
I, however, was intent on proving that I could do both, as I planned my visual arts project, in response to the Kubrick movie.
Four titanic black pieces of construction paper were liberated from Ms. Crivelli’s art room. I had access to large pieces of high quality cardboard from my evening job as stock boy at the Vintage Corner Spirits Shop, near the Co-Op. I set to work.
I glued the four huge pieces of black art paper, together, to make an even larger square. This was rolled into a tube, to make a cylinder, by adding big cardboard circles, at the ends. To one end, I glued on the cardboard dividers used to pack and ship wine bottles. They looked precisely like aerodynamic vanes. Everything that was not already black, was painted black. After an Air Force logo, and the scrawled words “Hi There!” were added, I had a near-perfect, near life-sized model of the atomic bomb that Major “King” Kong rode, to the doom of civilization, in the famous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s movie, Dr. Strangelove.
To this, I attached a small poster, a collage of pictures of beautiful things. The idea was, if the Bomb is ever used, these are the things that will be destroyed. A fine pacifist sentiment, which I meant in a serious way, but I also had a secondary goal.
I put my mother in the James Earl Jones role; she drove me to school with my creation, as it was way too big to carry on the schoolbus. Miss Leek greeted me with her customary enthusiastic smile, as I carried it into our classroom, before first period. It was taller, and wider, than I was. “Oh, hi Chris, what is this?”
I briefly explained what it was, and what is was supposed to show.
“Oh, this is a ‘wow’ ! Let’s set it here, in the corner.”
Well, actually not, Miss Leek. The Kubrick-Stella Reproduction Hydrogen bomb is meant to be suspended in the air.
“Ah, then, let’s hang it from the ceiling, here.”
No, actually, I was thinking that it might look best suspended from the light fixture directly over your desk.
A burst of laughter, then that zillion megawatt smile: “Yes! Lets!”
Minutes later, it was done.
And, for several days, there was a constant stream of visitors to her classroom, as Miss Leek sat happily below my sinister gigantic paper model of a Strangelovian thermonuclear warhead. I still have very mixed feelings about the whole business, in many ways; it was a most unwise thing for me to have done. But it was meant in a harmless way, done in a less harm-filled time, and I tell you about it only to show you that Miss Leek was fearless, and open to all sorts of types of expression, even those tinged with adolescent mania.
After this, I thought that I had won her over. And, our relations in the classroom did then become warm, and humor-filled.
But, regarding my writing, she became more exacting than ever. For, now she had a new rule:
“If there is even one spelling error, or one cross-out on your paper, then the maximum grade you can earn, is a ‘C’.”
Well, this I would not do. And she made good on her threat. I slouched into a grade of ‘D’ in my final quarter of English 12, with Miss Leek.
Miss Loren E. Leek, Chapter 2.
Now, in order to have this story make any sense, I have to tell you about a seemingly-unrelated conversation, thirty years later.
I was speaking with an old, retired policeman. He had spent his life on a small-town Force, usually a quiet setting, but when there was action it tended to be spectacular, and dangerous. Because the Force was so small, he was basically without much back-up. A radio call would produce no onslaught phalanx of screaming sirens, no army of blue would descend if he was in trouble, he was usually on his own, the only lawman within miles. I had my own professionally stressful experiences, but the difference was, in his line of work, his own life was also often at stake. I asked him if this required some ability to “kick it up a notch”, when required.
He just guffawed.
“Yeah, that’s what they say – when it’s all on the line, you will find a way to ‘rise to the occasion’. That’s bulltwinkie! Rise to the occasion, hah.”
“Listen, buddy, when your own meat is on the line and there is danger, no one ‘rises to the occasion!’”
“What happens is, you default to the level of your most basic training.”
Now this is interesting. When something you care personally and deeply about is at stake, and you have to perform a complex task to protect, you tend to go back to those things you learned hardest, and best. I’ll have to think about that.
Well, I graduated from Ridgewood High School. And, with the help of my parents, and some other people who had an unexplainable belief in me, I was admitted to a pretty good school, the University of Rochester. I was pre-med, and I really wanted to succeed in this, my whole view of myself was tied up in making it to med school.
And, although pre-med at Rochester reliably placed about 50 people into a medical school each year, because I had probably the worst high-school grades of anyone in the freshman class, well, the prognosis seemed grim. For the first time in my life I really cared about, and needed, good grades. I was petrified.
In my first week of college, I found myself enrolled in English 130, Concepts of Literature, with an aggressive, fuming Assistant Professor who I will call the Professional Aesthete. He was brilliant. He was incandescent. He was, most definitely, a Step to the Next Level.
After several weeks of aggressive, fuming, brilliant incandescence, the Professional Aesthete had his first assignment for us.
“Read the D.H. Lawrence story, Odour of Chrysanthemums. Write a three page paper. In your paper, tell me what the Lawrence story is ‘about’. Then, starting next week, I’ll meet with all of you, one at a time, to discuss your paper, and grade. Class dismissed.”
Some of my new classmates smirked with pleasure. They knew the drill. You had a nice dinner. You went to your room, and in an hour, wrote your paper. Then you turned it in. And then, your teacher said wonderful things about you.
As for me, it seemed that my brain had turned to stone. All the frothy, manic ideas that had tended to well up in my mind when I had been in the presence of Miss Leek, fled from me. I carefully typed out my paper while in this condition, to the best of my ability. I used the 1973 version of a word processor: my roommate’s old typewriter, fitted with a special paper, upon which you could expunge typed printing with a rubber eraser. I did not know it, but I had defaulted to the level of my most basic, hard-learned training.
But, after turning in our first college work, something strange began to happen. As my dorm mates returned from their meetings with the Professional Aesthete, there were wide eyes, blank stares, fearful expressions. The Professional Aesthete, it developed, was a grading nightmare. Everyone was returning with their papers perforated with slashing, words, written in bold red ink. Grades of C and below were the norm.
Entire careers in Cosmetic Dentistry were at risk, aflame with the P.A.’s red penned critique. Happy years performing Medicare Colonoscopies, maybe seven in a day, hung in the balance.
And, as I studied the dissected papers of my freshman friends, an even more disturbing trend seemed clear. The Professional Aesthete, his judgments were, well, aesthetic. He could say, “This is bad”, and he would be right. But, he appeared to be less effective in articulating how flaws could be corrected. He was not saying to anyone, given your interests and aptitudes, here are the affirmative things that you can do to write a better paper.
Finally, it was my turn. As the sonorous bell chimed out the Indian Summer hour from atop the Rush Rhees library dome, I wobbled across the inner courtyard, towards the P.A.’s office, which was located in the lowest, and innermost building, of the innermost Quadrangle. I ascended the 13-or-so stairs, and was waved into his small office, to receive my critique.
Up close, the persona of the Professional Aesthete was even more terrifying, than in class. His features seemed even more sharply incised. For the first time, I noticed small tufts of hair, which he should have shaved off, sprouting from the tips of his ears. I thought I saw the flit of a nictitating membrane. As he motioned me into the old oaken chair, I felt the cool wood against my calf. A knotted cord hung from a humming electrical fixture. Piles of burnt residue from his illegally-imported Cuban cigars smoldered on his desk.
A nicely freckled and friendly smile, was not seen. A diaphanous and airy Madras skirt, cowling, but also emphasizing, attractively tanned female legs, was not noted to be present, in the office of the Professional Aesthete, Assistant Professor of English, at the University of Rochester.
He also stared intently at me, as he pushed my paper across his desk, into my view. I looked at it. I could not see the grade – yet. But, there were no red marks, on it, at all. What few changes he had made, were made with a stubby, green felt pen. In one place, he had a double arrow, to indicate two of my words should be re-positioned. In another place, he had crossed out one of my words, and wrote in one of his own, that he liked better. That was it.
“Where did you go to high school?” he asked.
I told him.
Then, he started. The Professional Aesthete’s voice had a tone of respect, and his face now showed an intense sense of engagement.
“Well, it is very clear that your secondary school preparation in expository writing has been superb.…”
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