Many of us have at least one favorite teacher, and perhaps a few we may prefer not to remember. Other than my high school art teacher, Mrs. Canan, there are 2 other teachers to whom I must give credit. One of them is Mrs. Buchanan. She was my middle school English teacher in Wiggins, Colorado. It is possible she may no longer be with us, since I took her class in the early 1980s. But I would love to hear from her family and fellow former students if they happen to read this. (If I have her name wrong, it’s OK to correct me.)
Besides the fact I’m a writer, why would an English teacher matter to me? The answer is easy. I am a writer because of her.
Like all small children, I began my storytelling career by drawing pictures. We’ll just call it a monkey touch moment, when you realize there are ideas and interests you need to express, only you don’t quite possess the full communication tool box.
By age 4, I developed an interest in horses, to the point of obsession. My parents informed me repeatedly I could not have a horse. So, drawing them on everything, including my school work, became my consolation. I believed the horse fairy would magically appear one night and turn all my paper ponies into the real thing. Rather like the Greek Myth of Pygmalion and his dream girl. It never happened, darn it. One good thing did come out of it, though. My mom got tired of being called in to school and having me put in remedial reading programs. (Come on, they were interfering with my horse acquisition plan.)
Out of desperation, she handed me over to Mrs. Thomas, a retired school teacher from our church, the summer after second grade. Mrs. Thomas was a tough nut to crack. As a matter of fact, there was no cracking her. Despite every trick I tried, including “I’m tired,” she had me reading by the end of the summer. The carrot at the end of the stick? My mom allowed me to buy my first book from the Scholastic book order forms which were handed out in school. Imagine my surprise to discover a horse story among the offerings. Naturally, I chose it. The book was “Summer Pony” by Jean Slaughter Doty, about a girl my age who longed to own a pony. Boy, could I relate. And guess what? Now I had two vices.
I suppose I am the sort of person who never does anything by half measures. I became as obsessed with reading, as I did with drawing horses. I hid in my closet to read when trying to avoid chores. (Though my mom eventually discovered my hiding place. All she had to do was check the closet light switch.) My reading choices started expanding when I entered middle school, with my discovery of Victoria Holt’s “House of a Thousand Lanterns” when I was 13. My mom accepted the horse stories. Romance novels on the other hand, worried her a bit and became forbidden territory. You know what happens with teenagers, when you turn something they enjoy into contraband. By high school, I not only read a rather broad spectrum of romance sub-genres, I started venturing into fantasy, science fiction, and westerns.
Where does Mrs. Buchanan fit into my saga from reader to writer? Like the Wizard of Oz, she pulled back the curtain and revealed the writer’s bag of tricks. Yes, we still had spelling tests, but they doubled as vocabulary expansion. Then we learned the mechanics of sentence structure; nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, synonyms, antonyms, prepositional phrases, punctuation. After that, how to string those sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into essays or short stories. We learned to write poetry; long form, free form, haikus, and limericks to name a few. (Do I seem like the kind of person who would enjoy writing limericks?) She taught us how to do basic research, writing outlines and footnotes. Of course, between all that, we still had to read. It was in her class where I received an introduction to Greek Mythology. Now that I think of it, I am not certain that is age-appropriate reading; but I’ve had great fun with it in the books I’m writing now. Mrs. Buchanan gave me an excellent foundation which followed me into high school and adulthood.
Here’s one tip of hers I still remember concerning the use of commas. Besides putting them between sentences connected by and, but, or etc., or in dialog, you also use them to indicate natural pauses in speech.
There are no shortcuts anytime you wish to master something. You must walk before you can run. If you have not mastered the mechanics of writing, you have no skeleton from which to hang the meat of your story. Without a strong skeleton, everything else falls into a pile of messy goo. Splat!
In honor of Mrs. Buchanan, I give you this Quote of the Week. She used it to illustrate the proper use of synonyms. Bear in mind she was a classy lady, originally from Georgia, if I remember correctly.
Horses sweat, men perspire, and women suffer from the heat.
And since I’m feeling generous today, I give you this nugget from my husband, when he told his String instrument students the proper method for practicing and learning new pieces. It’s appropriate here too.Note by note, measure by measure, phrase by phrase.