Old School, Part One: I Remember Rosecrance

High School ’53 – The Way We Were, a remembrance by L. E. Taylor

“English is the most beautiful language God ever invented.” Al Neugebauer smiled and settled back comfortably into his big executive chair. “Listening to you speak is like listening to music.”

Years earlier, as a teenager, Al had escaped Eastern Europe. He’d known German, Russian, and a little French. His accented English came just before his American citizenship. And his lucrative travel business came after that.

The young adman across the desk from Al came by his own language skills less dramatically, but arguably with more stress.

I was a senior at Edwin Denby High School in December of 1952. My curriculum was “College Prep.” It meant something decades ago. We were being prepared for a course of study elevated above, and far more demanding than anything we had known. Only in my senior year had I come to understand that the world didn’t give a crap about me, and I’d better get focused.

I trundled to school each morning by public transportation before daybreak, dressed with care in a V-neck sweater, pressed grey flannel slacks, a button-down white shirt, and a tightly knotted knit tie. The finishing touch was often a scrupulously chalked pair of Pat Boone-style white bucks.

My English instructor was an eccentric martinet of the British “public” school model. A gangly, craggy, bespectacled, gray-faced Ichabod Crane, he dominated his stage, hectoring each wretch in his thirty-student classes, assuring them that his criticism was not general, but decidedly personal. He expected, each day, in each assignment, not perfection, but resounding excellence. He awarded no “A’s”.

On my first day of class at fifteen, he’d strode the aisles reading from each yellowed enrollment card and drilling each new victim with raven’s eyes. He stopped next to me. “LA-ree,” he said.

Yes, sir.

“Your name is Lawrence.” I told him my given name is Larry.

“Nonsense,” he sneered, “Suppose some mommy and daddy gazed upon their new babe and said, ‘Oh, ain’t he just darling! Let’s call him Herbie!’ Who’d want to go through life with Herrr-bie?!”

For the time being, my name would be Lawrence.

This was my introduction to Jackson Lancelot Rosecrance, Terror of the College Prep English faculty.

The whole name issue was moot; Mr. Rosecrance never used our Christian names anyway – only, in the custom of private prep schools, our surnames. One day in my senior year, he paused at my desk. “My, Mister Taylor, aren’t you the picture of sartorial splendor! Blazer… tie. May I see your socks?” I hiked up a creased slack-leg revealing a green and orange argyle. “Ahhh! I needn’t have asked. I could have heard them,” he hooted. Everyone laughed, not least of all, myself.

Mr. Rosecrance had few fans among the plebian student body. I was one of that few who got it. I enjoyed the sparring. I loved his droll way with words. And I was learning. Of course, I squirmed as he skewered classmates and I tolerated his belittling my own peccadilloes. But I knew what was going on. It wasn’t bloody-minded vitriol. This was just his act, albeit a persuasive one. He used it to force the main issue: Wake up, sluggard! You are better than the mess you are allowing yourself to drift into!

The Rosecrance method was unorthodox. He taught writing as a collateral skill to learning from great literature. Not a secondary side issue, writing was a synchronous part of in-depth English literature studies, at least in this public school room.

Appreciation of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Elizabethan poetry was interwoven with stringent exercises in vocabulary, syntax, and pellucid prose writing, even penmanship. Each Monday, in class, we were to write an extemporaneous precis (pray’-seez), a short 10-minute essay, and turn it in. The week’s precis, would be graded, 1-10.

As oral book-based classwork proceeded, led by students with the two highest scores of the previous week, Mr. R planted himself in the back of the room, crammed into the desk at the window corner. From this command post, he multi-tasked: monitoring and elucidating (in real time) the class doings, while summoning each student in turn, to come sit across the aisle from him and take his/her medicine, “one-to-ten”.

Once, I recall, he berated an athlete, a handsome blond track star and a letterman on our very good football team. “Trackman!” he barked, scowling at a slip of copybook paper. “Mister Betzer, there is no such word as ‘trackman’.” The lad’s reply was an embarrassed mumble. “Mr. Betzer, you are better than this… I think. Do not be misled by the fame of Dick Panin at Michigan State. He is said to have been a student here. He was NOT a student; he ATTENDED CLASSES here. And got away with it. You had the same amount of time on Monday as your classmates; you came up with this fiasco of eleven words, and … ‘trackman.’ Your grade for the week is zero.”

Okay, enough of the caricature. Mr. Rosecrance was more than the sadistic drill sergeant he portrayed; he was a serious, gifted teacher of the English literary canon. He introduced me to the dysfunctional Macbeths and other figments of Elizabethan imagination – Bacon, Marlow, Spenser, the Sonnets, and quaint oddities that would come to mean more very shortly on a faraway campus.

How do I remember these things? I guess they made an impression. And I remember one other moment, which is the counterpoint of this tale.

It was the last day before Christmas break. A cold, bleak morning outside. I was making my way around back of the room before class. Mr. Rosecrance had got up from his nesting place at the last desk by the window and walked toward me. The passage was narrow. I stood aside to make way for him. Suddenly, with theatrical clumsiness, he stomped his dull black brogans upon my white bucks. He grabbed my shoulders and, with moist eyes, he whispered straight into my face, “Thank you for the Christmas card, Larry. That was damned nice of you.”

His breath was awful. But what startled me was, “… Larry”.

Dedicated to Al Neugebauer, wherever you are.

Onward.

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LETs Blog

 

Next time: Old School, Part Two – Education on the Rocks

 

7 comments to Old School, Part One: I Remember Rosecrance

  1. John Dayton says:

    Quite the opposite happened when I was moving up to the 7th grade at Highland Junior HS in Battle Creek. Yep! Going to finally get out of elementary school and be with the big guys.
    My teacher for 7th grade was going to be Mr Pagel. Louis Pagel to be exact. I saw him in the hall and ran up to him and said, “Hey Pagel”, I’m going to be in your class”. He looked down at me and said, “My name is Mr. Pagel and this isn’t the season to make hay” Ooops!

    • L. E. Taylor says:

      Not the opposite, brother John – the SAME! Those were the days when we kids weren’t the boss, the instructor was, and more important, he was guided by a curriculum that had been fashioned and proven over a couple of thousand years. Nobody needed Washington D.C. to tell them how to run a class or how to make good American citizens. It was in their veins. -LT

  2. Rick W says:

    “Choose life” comes to mind often when I think of Larry Taylor. It’s one of his favorite sayings. Writing a memoir honoring his parents ignited a passion for sharing his gifts for story-telling and writing with others.

    Turns out being a student in Mr. Rosencrance’s college prep class made a lasting impact. Farther out than the four or so years Larry was preparing for. Having heard and shared Mr R’s call to WAKE UP!, Larry’s writings remind us all there’s plenty of life to be had, if we do our part and choose it.

    Blessings to you in your calling to share your extraordinary gifts.

  3. L. E. Taylor says:

    You have seen the truth, Rick W. We are here to embrace life and to nourish others, not to strut the wonder of the fact that, at long last, we are HERE, and we are who the world has been waiting for. Childish nonsense. Teach your kids The Way. And pray for them. And for this land that was God’s idea.

  4. Berna Bance says:

    Are there any good poetry sites that you know of so that I can have an account that has lots of space to type out stories/poems on? Or do you know of any writing sites at all that I could post blogs on, sort of like having a whole website to myself?.

  5. Terry Ryan says:

    I really enjoyed reading your January 16 Blog about your memorable teacher Mr. Rosecrance and from your colorful description, visualized a fussbudget Alan Rickman looking down his nose at his students all the while, thoroughly enjoying their discomfort as he incited and mocked them to expand their thinking. Not all took the challenge but obviously you did and were the better for it. Thanks! And thanks also for not “Rosecrancing” your elderly, plebian students. To quote Albert Einstein “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think”

  6. L. E. Taylor says:

    Thanks for the careful reading of my work, Terry. I used to tell my clients as well as my staff, “There are lots of ad guys doing what we do. Above all, our clients pay us very well not to say, ‘Yes, boss’ and crank out safe copy and graphics like everyone else; they pay us to think.”

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