When an 'A' Meant Something

As I move into the autumn of life and look back at those who helped shape my character, I often think of a diminutive freshman English professor named Doris Garey.

What little competence in English I had gained in high school, I had lost during a two-year sojourn in the Navy Air Corps. So as I entered Hamline University in 1946, I was slated to take ”dumb-dumb” English 1, 2, a remedial course without credit. ”Required of all freshman... whose competence is inadequate,” read the course catalog. But a scheduling problem allowed me to escape and enter Freshman Composition 11, 12. ”Miss Garey will be good for you,” said my adviser as I walked out the door.

Even though she had a bachelor’s degree from Mount Holyoke and a doctorate from Wisconsin, Miss Garey was the low person in the department pecking order. And physically she was a light-weight - she could not have stood more than 4-foot-10 or weighed more than 100 pounds. But she had the pedagogical mass of a Sumo wrestler. Her literary expectations were stratospheric; she was the academic equivalent of my boot camp drill instructor.

Thirty-five of us were sardined into a 15-by-28-foot classroom at the west end of the third floor of Old Main. In spite of her Lilliputian stature, she stood over her class like the Colossus of Rhodes. She knew we had heads full of mush.

The late ’40s was an era before DD (dumbing down) and OTG (only two grades-A and B). Miss Garey’s standards were like the Marine Corps hair cut, ”high and tight.” Her grading followed a bell curve - if six students received B’s, six got D’s.

She required us to master the Harbrace English Handbook, which listed the rules of the king’s English. Our essays came back covered with marginal abbreviations from the handbook, where we were expected to look up our mistakes. Miss Garey had a fundamentalist’s facility for citing chapter and verse. She required one theme a week- 16 in all - for the term. Our first assignment - ”write about a childhood experience” - I thought was a piece of cake. I wrote a five-page essay. ”Hunting Rabbits With Skippy, My Chesapeake Bay Retriever.” My sentences were larded with beautiful word pictures - clouds, meadows, birds, the sunset, the behavior of rabbits and Skippy, even eating my lunch. When the papers were handed back, I eagerly awaited my A. I envisaged sending it home to my parents.

When I received a D for grammar/construction and a C- minus for content/development, my heart missed a few beats. Miss Carey’s copious markings reminded me of the droppings on the paper in my parakeet’s cage. I felt profaned. I had the urge to drop the course and look for some easy courses, but I feared facing rny counselor. It was going to be a long 16 weeks.

Every Friday Miss Garey would call on the student with the best paper to read a paragraph or two to show the rest of us what good writing was. I was glad I had picked the corner chair in the back row.

But the Navy had taught me a version of ”Ours is not to question why, ours is but to do or die.” I hung in there - and eventually I began to respond to Miss Garey’s regimen. Toward the middle of the second term I was getting A’s and A-minuses. Because I had started so low, those grades meant much more. I was gaining on myself. In April, when Miss Garey asked me to recite several paragraphs of my psychological study of the brilliant detective in Dostoevsky’s ”Crime and Punishment,” I was ecstatic.

The other day I walked past a grading chart of one of the large departments at Hamline University, where I am now a professor emeritus. Forty students, coded by number, had their machine-graded tests totaled for the term. Thirty-seven received A’s, two got A-minuses, and one laggard could manage only a B-plus. I wondered if students today had the same feeling of accomplishment that I did 50 years ago.

In 1949 Miss Garey quietly left our campus after a five- year sojourn, to head the English department at a black college in Kentucky. Years later I realized it took at least 10 years after graduation to know who were my best teachers. The showboats had long since faded, along with their banter, jokes and easy grades. It was the no-nonsense Miss Garey whose memory endured.

Miss Garey demanded and received respect, if not holy fear. No student dared call her Doris; had one done so. she probably would have responded with a fairly decent imitation of the ”war face” of Gen. George S. Patton. She didn’t want to be a ”Welcome Back, Kotter,” high-five, buddy-buddy type of teacher. She believed that teachers, like physicians, should respect the boundaries between themselves and their charges.

When I was at Duke University studying for my doctorate, I thought about calling Hamline to get Miss Garey’s address and write a note of appreciation. But other duties were pressing. Now she is gone and it is too late.

For almost 40 years, as a professor of humanities, I have walked in Miss Garey’s footsteps. My feet are much larger than hers were, but I am sure she left a much bigger imprint on her students. If I have had any success as a writer, I owe much of it to her. Academia could use a legion of Miss Gareys today!