Monday, May 14, 2007

Gladys Watson -- Harper Lee's English teacher

From Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields:

"The first of her two role models was her high school English teacher, Miss Gladys Watson. Like an apprentice learning the craft of language, Nelle willingly submitted to Miss Watson's instruction. . . .

"English professors at state universities in Alabama were known to remark to some of the more proficient undergraduates, 'You must have taken Miss Watson.'

"Her classes always began with students receiving a blue grammar rules booklet--a sort of early Strunk and White Elements of Style--which Miss Watson had personally selected. It was going to be their Bible, she told them--they should never lose it.
[Could that booklet have been the Guide to Composition, above left, by James Finch Royster of UNC & Stith Thompson of Colorado College, first printed in 1919?
We know of one Alabamian of Lee's generation who used that text in her high school years.
Or it could have been the Century Handbook of Writing by Garland Greever of Indiana University and Easley S. Jones of the University of Illinois, also published in 1919?
Both books are 6 1/2 inches x 5 inches, about 1/2 inch thick, and both are still available on for a pittance.]

"She skewered mistakes on their papers by indicating in the margin the page number in the blue booklet where that particular problem was treated. Then the paper had to be rewritten and handed in with the mistakes corrected. . . .

"Grammar, she explained over and over, was not a pointless academic exercise, but a tool. Knowing the rules was the quickest route to better writing. Grammatical writing also was the key to developing a clear and euphonious style of writing.

"She had her students read their compositions aloud so everyone could hear how good writing had three C's: clarity, coherence, and cadence."

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