Coming to Skippy's Class ill Prepared
As an 18 year old, on the first hour of the first day of my freshman year, I wandered into the dreaded English Literature classroom at Grays Harbor College and met a person who changed my life.
Once I might have thought that Virginian Younger, who passed away this week at the age of 90, was just another teacher. But that was until that first day in her class when she began to talk, or better yet I should say began to teach.
Knowing nothing of the English Literature (or maybe any literature for that matter) I was surprised to find how fascinating and revealing that subject, maybe any subject, could be in the hands of a master educator. Here was a person who had such a zest for her subject that no one could help but fall prey to her interest.
Mrs. Younger’s favorite topics were Shakespeare and the romantic poets, whom she could bring to life making them as real as if they were standing at the front of the classroom. She would read passages aloud or require students to do so.
Together we would examine every sentence in hopes of seeing the most subtle of meanings. It would get sliced, diced and subjected to the kind of adolescent thoughts common to students. She was never dismissive and only pushed to hear more thinking, more examination.
Looking back it is astonishing to realize that this world class scholar was teaching in a small community college off the beaten path in the Northwest corner of the country. She would have wowed any student in the finest college anywhere. Norton's Anthology was her constant companion. It became mine too.
With Shakespeare’s plays she made the language sing, the heroes heroic, the villains despicable. Her eyes twinkled at the century old jokes until we too found the humor. She even hinted at the naughty parts.
Suddenly the supposedly stilted language of the time range true. It warned and promised us things we would encounter later in life; hopefully with a lesser degree of tragedy, but maybe with a larger dose of joy.
Twenty years later, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when friends from our home town were attending, a group of former students asked Mrs. Younger to comment on a topic in that day’s play.
"Oh I remember that Cynthia here wrote an excellent paper on it, while in my class." said Mrs. Younger. To which Cynthia replied, "I really don’t remember the paper, and I certainly don’t remember the answer."
To those in attendance it was not the least bit surprising Virginian Younger would remember every good paper written by every student for such a long time.
I came to Virginian Younger’s class ill prepared.
I didn't realize it was OK to want to be smarter, that digging into classics could give me a perspective on the future or that there could be a teacher who cared so desperately for her student's growth she once cried in class. Everyone had done poorly on that week’s quiz because, as she concluded, when all students do poorly it is the teacher who has failed.
We forgave her and dug in with greater dedication - to her.
I took a class from Virginia Younger every day for two years, although I could not get myself to call her "Skippy" her life long nickname. Her daughter had been my classmate in high school where teachers could only be addressed with the honor of a "Mr." or "Mrs" So to this day she is forever Mrs. Younger, as a sign of respect.
This teacher’s tests were legendary among students, particularly to those who were looking for an easy grade. In Mrs. Younger’s class they would be sadly surprised.
The every-Friday quizzes were not the puffy multiple choice tests that high school had prepared me for. Hers were blue book examinations for which there was often only one question and a dozen blank pages demanding to be filled. Student’s could leave early when done, but that could only mean you had not thought enough, reasoned with clarity or given it your all.
"Give me reasons. Explain your thoughts. Show you are thinking."
"You must have quotes" and you must attribute them correctly"
"Don’t worry too much about punctuation. Show me that you think. Convince me"
During that first class on the first day I met Michael who was to become a life-long good friend. Initially we sat in the back row until one day, arriving late, we were forced to sheepishly slide into front row seats.
Mrs. Younger noticed, paused for effect and then said, "Gentlemen, to what do we owe the honor? Are you trying to learn through osmosis?"
The students roared with laughter as did Michael and I. After class he asked, "Do you know what it means?" I said no. "Me either" Michael said, "I guess we better go look it up."
Off we went to the library on what was to become a lifetime of looking things up, of finding interest in pretty much everything and of realizing it is OK to want to be smarter. That may have been the exact day I learned that getting smarter is enjoyable and worthy even if, at the age of 18, I had no idea why.
My friend Michael took the student role more seriously than most. After Grays Harbor College he went on to get his bachelors degree, his masters and later is PHD in educational leadership. He became a teacher, a professor and theater director and much more.
Unfortunately I was unable to attend his PHD dissertation, but I did come to learn that dissertations have some odd requirements. Candidates must write their thesis well in advance, then schedule a spoken presentation, invite interested students, colleagues and experts and then - strangely - ask for and be prepared to defend their conclusions. Candidates even have to provide the refreshments. Odd.
Michael completed all the requisite steps including mailing out a long list of invitations hoping experts of note would appear. Having done theatrical work with Michael I know him to be impeccably prepared, rehearsed, detailed and strongly assured. But even he admitted to a touch of stage fright for this performance.
But upon moving to the front of the room, Michael was pleasantly reassured when, as he looked out upon the attendees there was Virginian Younger, now retired, sitting front and center of the first row. Smiling.
With that support he began what he was confident was a world class talk.
As he concluded, and after polite applause Michael’s PHD advisor, asked the audience for comments and criticism. Immediately an unknown middle aged man stood and began a rant about Michael’s entire topic, its weaknesses and what, in his estimation, had been Michael’s waste of the educational system.
Michael was taken aback and paused wondering what to do next. He never had the chance.
Just then an attractive senior citizen woman rose from the first row, turned to face the audience, paused for effect, looked the heckler in the eye and dismissed the enemies every point in great detail. Mrs. Younger did so with a smile in her eyes which secretly told the audience she was smarter; and it was OK to be smarter.
Michael was awarded his PHD.
The only demerit his Advisor leived was that inviting a "ringer" to defend the presenter was considered bad behavior.
Afterward Michael thanked Mrs. Younger profusely for having read his thesis and speaking on his behalf.
"It is not every day that one of my students achieves a PHD but I must apologize to you. I’m so busy being retired I didn’t even have time to read it. But of course I will. Its not my area of expertise but I am sure I will love it"
Upon telling this story later, with much laughter and back slapping, Michael suddenly stopped mid sentence when he realized,
"I’ve spent 20 years getting smarter, getting a PHD of which I am very proud. But it is a daunting to realize that Skippy is still the smartest person in the room."