I have this theory that most people have had an eccentric English teacher. The theory developed once after I was telling a friend about my own unconventional English teacher from high school, and she admitted she had had one, too. Because I’m the only person from my class at the University of Michigan, I feel pretty comfortable writing about Ruth. More specifically, I have no problem revealing that she was most likely the most bizarre teacher I’ve ever had. But that was a lot of her appeal to me.
During the summer between 10th and 11th grade, I received an envelope with a few sheets of paper, each detailing a specific assignment. One was to come up with a list of vocabulary words I didn’t know in each of the assigned summer readings, define them and write sentences with them. Another was to write a different style of essay on each book. The last was to take a list of commonly misused words and use them correctly. That was the beginning of Ruth.
The first day of class, I encountered an old woman wearing a denim dress, with her hair in a chignon. This pattern — denim dress, often with seasonal embroidery, but not always, and chignon — would continue for every single day of the school year. But this sweet-looking woman immediately had everyone in the class draw an oval in highlighter and outline it in red pen onto a notecard. Those would become our “yellow egg” cards, and we had to correct any mistakes we made with our commonly misused words on them all year. Other Ruth highlights include playing loon calls in class when we read Thoreau, passing an eyelash curler around the class to demonstrate what it was and memorizing the AP scores of all her previous students.
This is all said endearingly, because I honestly believe Ruth is the reason I’m an English major and copy editor now. I know the differences between your and you’re; they’re, there and their; who and whom and, at least mostly, lay, lie and lie. I don’t want to brag, but I never had to use my “yellow egg” card. The beauty of the ridiculous English teacher (or any teacher, really) is that you remember them and, peripherally, some of what they taught you. I remember the loon calls, and I remember Thoreau. I remember Ruth’s love of Robert Redford and the shirt scene in the 1974 “Great Gatsby” and I remember the green light. Every time I write an essay, I remember the time she immediately handed an essay back to one of my peers when he turned it in because it wasn’t in Times New Roman, so I always use Times New Roman even when it’s not required.
When I first told someone about Ruth, he laughed at me and told me she sounded crazy. But when I started asking around, I learned that I’m not alone. Almost all of my housemates and fellow copy editors have stories about their own Ruths, including an interesting tale about a crow named Walter. That we all remember these peculiar moments and teachers, years after we had them, says a lot to me. Even the teachers you might complain about and think are unreasonable now are teaching you something, and you’ll probably end up telling your kids about them when they complain about their teachers. At the very least, you have a willing listener in me. I’m always looking for more Ruth stories.