Over the weekend, I heard about the passing of June Smith.
You’ve heard about her in this space before; she was the wife of Dick Smith, my college choir director, about whose passing I wrote six years ago.
And while I spent less time with Mrs. Smith, she was just as important a figure in my life as her husband was. And I don’t suispect I was the only one.
Junior high was a miserable time. I suspect it is for pretty much everyone that’s not an early bloomer – and I was certainly not that.
The worst part? Most of the things that had let me coast through elementary school – a way with words, a moderate facility with and enjoyment of wriring – had been turned into penal drudgery by years of needing to learn the right way to do it. I’d always loved writing – but between seventh and tenth grade, the only “writing” that happened was slogging through grammar, diagramming sentences, beating rules into our heads that I, honestly, didn’t know, but practiced just fine.
And then, in 11th grade, I finally got to take “Creative Writing”, with Mrs. Smith – a longtime English department colleague of my dad’s at the high school.
I came very close to writing “And suddenly, writing was fun again!”.
It was. But to leave it there would leave out half of the story. Because – l like her husband did with music – she taught us how good writing could be with a little bit of discipline.
And she did it with one enduring concept: Engfish.
She described it as “English that is so full of soggy, rotten, cliched, pompous, pretentious dead weight that it stinks like a dead, rotting fish”. Her stated mission was to teach us how to write without Engfish.
Her class included some writing exercises I still remember. When our essays included any cliches, redundancy or pomposity, they’d come back marked with a penciled in fish, with “x” eyes and little vapor lines radiating upward. That was the Engfish sign; you’d written something that stank, and needed to rewrite it.
The real acid test? We’d turn in an essay; when she hit a phrase that made her lose internest – a big of Engfish, a soggy parenthetical, a diversion from the thesis – she drew a line at that point and stopped reading. She’d had it back to us to rewrite, as many times as it took for her to get through the essay with no Engfish. Getting an essay past her without getting it sent back was one of the highlights of my junior year.
And that – learning how to write tight, to-the-point English – made writing not just fun, but truly absorbing, something I finally felt like I was in command of.
I wasn’t, of course – it’d take my college writing prof, Dr. Blake (who also passed away in the past year and a half) and years of practice to get there, and truth be told I still work at it, hard, every day. It’s half the reason I plug away on this blog every weekday.
But ever since Mrs. Smith’s class, I’ve genuinely enjoyed it.
Mrs. Smith taught a lot of good writers, including her daughter and my high school classmate Kathryn, who wrote this essay last week about caring for June this past few months, while she’s been ailing.
This? Just my way of saying thanks. All that teaching actually changed a kid’s life, and is still doing it.