Back to School: Clairton teacher left cult of Chaucer as her wondrous legacy

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Some affiliations that we make become a part of our identity.

For instance, a Marine is always a Marine -- never an ex-Marine. A member of a college fraternity or sorority usually says, "I'm a Sigma Nu" (or whatever). Members of national lodges, such as the Masons or Elks, often wear lapel pins so that they can be recognized by other members.

I have such a lifelong affiliation, acquired in high school, that is shared with thousands of people. I am a member in good standing of "Miss Wilson's Chaucer Cult."

Some background: Miss Helen D. Wilson taught me and about 150 other kids in six classes of senior English at Clairton High School in 1955-56. To me, she was a frail, little, old spinster lady who was very demanding.

For instance, we were required to learn about six vocabulary words each day. Every day, she would select students to recite the meaning that they had gleaned from a dictionary of each of the previous day's words. Other students were chosen to use them in a sentence. Anyone unable to fulfill this duty got a cold frown and a mark ostentatiously made in her grade book.

She never specifically told us the purpose of this, probably because the short-term purpose was to help us on the "College Boards," now called the SATs, and that might have turned off those who weren't going to college. In those days, the idea of preparing for these important tests, now an industry, was not widely accepted. Besides, who can argue that having a better vocabulary isn't a good thing for everyone?

I understood this and other demands that Miss Wilson made. But the one thing that she had us do whose purpose I could not fathom was to memorize and recite the "Prologue" to Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" in OLD ENGLISH. It goes something like this: "Whan thet Aprilla whet ets sura sota, the droth of March hath perced to the rota ... " and on and on. (Apologies to those offended by misspellings of Old English; I learned it only phonetically.)

It was a number of years before I discovered Miss W's purpose in searing this strange poetry into our memories. I had to see a new school principal about one of my kids. The newspaper article about his appointment mentioned that he was a Clairton High School graduate. So, I thought that our common background would be a good icebreaker for the serious talk that I wanted to have with him.

His secretary ushered me into his office, and we shook hands with me saying, "I understand that we went to the same high school." He replied, "Did you happen to have Miss Wilson for senior English?" I nodded and we both spontaneously broke into a recitation: "Whan thet Aprilla ... "

His secretary came rushing back into the office saying, "I heard you two doing that strange chant and I thought that there must be something going on that is awfully weird!" After assuring her that we were still sane, we discussed our joint realization that we were unwitting members of "Miss Wilson's Chaucer Cult."

Something like this has happened to me a number of other times. Over the years, I've tried to figure out the benefits that our ability to do this recitation, other than recognizing fellow cult members, might have. I have found none. On those rare occasions when I've demonstrated this ability in public, such as when conversation is in a lull at a dinner party, people's eyes have a tendency to glaze over and some hurriedly leave the table.

My wife, who is also a member of the cult since she took the course with Miss W a year after me, is more sensible. She does recitations only in the privacy of our bedroom; I suspect it's to turn me on.

So, it seems to me that the sole purpose of this class assignment was the creation of a cult. We were being sent out into the world, like "sleeper" agents planted by a foreign intelligence service, to be activated at some future time when we meet another member.

This little lady, Miss Wilson, teacher over the years of thousands of students and now long dead, lives on through the cult that she created, as well as in the hearts and minds of those of us who she taught so much and who remember her so fondly.

intelligencer

William R. King of Fox Chapel, a retired University of Pittsburgh professor, can be reached at wking115@yahoo.com. The PG Portfolio welcomes "Back to School" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to page2@post-gazette.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.


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