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