Storytelling: Fear and trembling in AP English with Mr. Guthrie
Our Storytelling series on favorite teachers continues (read earlier stories):
William Guthrie: a name that even 30 years later still invokes a sense of dread and a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. In my small high school in New Jersey, he was the only choice for 12th grade AP English.
A stooped, balding man with gnarled hands and a pronounced limp whose reputation preceded him, I knew his class would most likely be the worst part of my senior year at Bernards High School. The first week of class, we were informed by Mr. Guthrie that incomplete and run-on sentences in our papers would not be tolerated. In fact, they would earn a grade of "F" regardless of the content.
I spent countless hours proofreading my papers to avoid such a fate. However, he had other surprises in store for me. One memorable paper he smugly returned to me did have an "F" on it. The only other notation he made on the paper was "NO!" Apparently, he did not agree with my analysis of whatever fiction or poem the assignment was about.
Several times a month, I would enter the class to see him grinning devilishly at his desk while my classmates sat staring glumly at the blackboard.
Uh-oh, it must be Impromptu Day.
On the board were two or three topics of which we were to choose one to develop into a paper during that class, with only our brains for a resource. They were usually off-the-wall esoteric topics that we were expected to expound upon, fully supported by topic sentences and supporting details, of course.
He was a proper gentleman, addressing his students by their surnames preceded by Mr. or Miss, but we knew not to be fooled by his civility. He was quick to discount the answers of those brave enough to raise their hands with a loud "BAH!" or startled squawk. One minute he would be laughing hysterically about something with us -- and the next he had a stone cold look of disapproval on his face. We never knew where we stood with him.
During our Shakespeare unit, we had the "pleasure" of memorizing one of Hamlet's soliloquies. Not only did we have to memorize it, but we had to recite it standing solo in front of Mr. Guthrie.
With knees knocking and voice shaking, I stumbled through my carefully memorized piece while he made marks on his paper when I failed to pause in the proper places or committed any number of other infractions. "To be or not to be ..."
Many years removed from high school, I heard of his death. I was saddened to learn that he was quite young when he died. His appearance had been affected by the crippling effects of rheumatoid arthritis, and, consequently, we had all assumed he was a much older man -- I always thought of him being around my grandparents' age.
Despite his quirky ways and memorable teaching methods, I did manage to pass his class. Favorite teacher, not likely. Unforgettable teacher, without a doubt. (I know, that was two incomplete sentences in a row.)
I like to think that in some small way he instilled in me a love of the correctly written word and is sitting up in heaven at this moment thinking to himself, "Well done, Miss Burd."
First Published September 3, 2008 12:00 am