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October 24, 2013


Next to me on my desk is a black, heavy paper binder into which are fastened one hundred four pages of well-thumbed mimeographed notes. (Who still remembers mimeograph machines?) These notes contain, among many items, advice on grammar and writing; reading lists; vocabulary lists; analyses of classic novels and Shakespeare’s plays; an outline of the history of English literature; and explorations of the elements of fiction, poetry, drama, and the essay.

These notes were prepared by my eleventh-grade English teacher, Gretchen Dickey, and handed out in class over the course of a year’s study. Collectively they are, in essence, her self-written textbook. I think the fact that I still possess my binder fifty years later attests to the impact and value her class had for me.

Miss Dickey started teaching in 1938 and retired in 1977, all at the same small-town Pennsylvania high school. Three things stood out about her. When it came to literature, she had standards—her own high standards, nobody else’s. She was demanding; her standards had to be met and lack of effort wasn’t tolerated. And you were never going to outsmart her. (She had multiple degrees—in history, not English, strangely enough—and did I mention that her brother was president of Dartmouth?)

She once said to our class, “Oh, how I envy you for all the great books you're going to read for the very first time.” She was determined to introduce us to as many great books as she could. I think she meant to send us off on a lifelong quest.

Our class read the essays of Addison and Steele and we learned with some surprise that the fashion of drinking coffee in coffee houses had “much to do with the development of literature in the eighteenth century.” We learned not only about allusion, coherence, imagery, and narrative, but also about malapropisms and spoonerisms. Some of us may have gagged on Silas Marner (I did), but we struggled through and were better equipped for it. We discovered The Elements of Style, which, for me, has never been far out of reach ever since. And Miss Dickey embraced J.D. Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye, which at the time was the most-censored book in American high schools; other teachers thought it too controversial to teach.

I was going through my horror movie phase and foolishly tried to slip in a book review of Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera. Leroux was French, after all, and didn’t that lend a bit of cachet? Most assuredly not, Miss Dickey icily informed me. She refused to accept my review. Apparently she thought the book was on a level with a pulp magazine of the time called Ranch Romances, which she often cited as the embodiment of all that was trash.

In class, she wore a uniform of sorts: always a man’s white or light blue long-sleeve dress shirt, a dark blue or black wool skirt, and blue or red Keds. She made no attempt to camouflage the belly that spilled over the waist of her skirt. (She lived near me and I frequently saw her on the way to her apartment with a case of beer slung under one arm.) She had dark, beady eyes and a laser gaze against which there was no defensive shield. Her grayish frizzed hair had a high-tensile look that reminded me of Elsa Lanchester in “The Bride of Frankenstein.”

Miss Dickey’s classes were punctuated with memorable moments. One day the principal came uninvited to observe her class. She did not appreciate that. We watched goggle-eyed from our desks as she grabbed him by the back of his jacket collar and trotted him out of the classroom and slammed the door behind him. Dancing Dan -- a wooden doll with articulated joints that tap-danced on a bouncing board -- was always handy for comic relief. And who could forget her “fencing” demonstrations with blackboard pointers? When she finally allowed herself to be “run through” she would cry, “Touch-eee!” and stagger around the room in mock death throes.

For years my mother taught English in the junior high next door. At home I continually underwent grammatical correction with such pearls as: “When the pronoun is the object of the preposition, you have to use the objective case, as in ‘whom’ rather than ‘who,’ which is subjective case.” You could have guessed that my mother had had Miss Dickey too, twenty-two years before me.


My buddy Charlie and I always meant to stop by to see Miss Dickey after she retired and tell her how much the stuff she taught us had stuck with us. Alas, we never did. She died in 1991. Charlie and I did, however, share a unique Miss Dickey moment. One day, post-graduation, were walking past the front of the high school and saw Miss Dickey standing on the ground, struggling with the window of her first-floor classroom.  Naturally, given who it was, we found it not at all strange that she might be attempting to climb in the window. It was after hours, the building was closed and the doors shut, but, she explained, she needed to retrieve some papers. The window was unlocked but a little too high for her to hoist her bulk up to the sill and climb in. We did what any grateful students would: We gave her a boost.

© 2013 Editorial Enterprises, Inc., and Donald C. Sarvey


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