I qualified for “dumb English.” At least that’s what I called the class when I didn’t make the cut for Advanced Placement (AP) English. It was my senior year at University City High School in San Diego, CA.
I was pissed. Especially when I attended my first class, barely knew anyone, and saw how quirky my new English teacher was. Ms. Vreeland was also the ceramics teacher. What art teacher knows anything about teaching English…and vice versa?
That’s what I thought.
I headed to the back of the room, slumped down in my chair, and did nothing to hide my disdain. After class, I trekked across campus to my counselor’s office to find out why I had been gipped. My counselor told me I failed the entrance test to get into AP English.
During the second day of class, Ms. Vreeland outlined her curriculum. We’d be covering Shakespeare, a lot of poetry, and other named works I didn’t care about. Writing was going to be a focus too.
So You Think You Know How to Write?
“Writing? I already know how to write,” I thought. I’ve been getting As in English since Junior High. I quickly predicted the class was going to be a blow-off. But I was a senior. So what and great for me.
Very quickly Ms. Vreeland assigned some papers. I couldn’t wait to show her my Oxford-inspired vocabulary and writing prowess.
I had practically memorized the vocabulary section of my SAT Prep Guide. Each week, on my Mom’s KayPro computer, I would create a list of 20 words I didn’t know. I’d print them on our noisy dot matrix printer, and carry them in my pocket. Any chance I could, I’d break out my list and recite the words.
I wanted to raise my vocabulary score on the SAT. There were so many words I just didn’t know. My learning strategy could be described as “blunt force trauma:” memorize, memorize, memorize and repeat.
Didn’t See That Coming
Two consecutive Fs!
That’s what I scored on my first two papers. This can’t be right. I’d never received an F grade, on any assignment, in my high school career.
I double-checked the name at the top. Ms. Vreeland was definitely going to have some esplaining to do.
After everyone left, I waltzed my arrogant self over to her desk to find out what her beef was. It looked like she’d splattered a handful of red paint on each page.
She used copy editor’s shorthand abbreviations to note her comments. “¶” meant start a new paragraph. “RO” noted a run-on sentence. “Tighten, Cut, Abbrev., Rework” were written everywhere. You almost couldn’t read the printed text.
She had to give us a handout just to decipher her cryptic codes.
Ms. Vreeland politely walked me through every note she made. It was exhausting. I couldn’t wait for it to be over.
A Bucket of Cold Water…to the Face
I realized very quickly this class was not going to be a joke.
I didn’t like it at first but Ms. Vreeland assigned a writing worksheet in class or gave writing homework almost every day. We were rewriting and correcting sentences and paragraphs continually. “Tighten your writing. Remove the flab. Don’t use weak adjectives. Absolutely no clichés. Learn proper grammar and punctuation and use it,” she instructed.
I remember feeling a bit anxious turning in my third paper. My fragile ego couldn’t handle another F.
I got a D or a C. Nothing awe-inspiring but progress. Actually, she had me fired up. The constant and steady red-penning of my work made me want to compete. The constant reminders to write clearly, concisely, and understandably, were becoming lodged in my brain.
I had to get better. I wasn’t going to let her win this teacher-student battle; a contest that was only happening in my mind.
Slowly…Not Always Surely
The quality of my writing started to improve. I was earning a solid understanding of the fundamentals. I felt like I had some writing tools I could use and a little bit of know-how. I was actually starting to like the class–maybe even love it.
At the end of the year, my friends who had qualified for AP English, were studying for the exam. I hadn’t read much of the prep material, but I decided to take the test anyway. Ms. Vreeland’s constant pressure to master the basics had given me some confidence.
If You Don’t Know, Act Like You Do
During the AP exam, there were lots of questions about books I hadn’t read. At the end of the test, you have to write a long essay. I knew little about the books that the essay was supposed to cover.
I had to write something, so I imagined what my selected book might be about, and filled several pages.
I didn’t kill it, but I got a passing grade of three. I couldn’t wait to share my mini-achievement with my English teacher.
At the time, I didn’t know that Ms. Vreeland wrote professionally for travel magazines. Later on, I learned she was a best-selling author who wrote eight books and countless articles over her lifetime. She taught high school English for thirty years.
Thank You Ms. V.!!
Not only was she was an amazing writer and artist, she had a gift for teaching and coaching. If you were open to learning, Ms. Vreeland could teach you how to write, and write well.
The skills I developed in dumb English, have served me my entire life. They helped me in college, during my sports career, and at every sales and marketing job I’ve ever had. I’m eternally thankful to Susan Vreeland. What a gift and a blessing she gave me and all her students. She was a pro who didn’t have to go out of her way.
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Links for Susan Vreeland
New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/04/books/susan-vreeland-novelist-with-a-passion-for-art-dies-at-71.html