Long Remembered: A Fine Recollection

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AUTHOR: Nuke Ken on 6/29/2024

Note: This is the second Forum piece from my ‘shelved articles’ archive. It was written months ago but never submitted to Jonathan.

These days, people often debate the value of a college education, but what about the value of a good high school education? I was fortunate to attend high school in Moorestown, New Jersey, a community that has always valued having an excellent school system.

With the perspective shaped by over 40 years of life post-graduation, I find that my respect for my high school teachers has only increased. Out of 25 or so different teachers I had over my four high school years, I can think of only a few that I would consider to be mediocre. I have many examples of teachers that were superior or even, in my humble opinion, world class.

Prior to high school, I’d always excelled at math, science, and reading. What about writing? When I look at samples of writing I did prior to high school, I’m not impressed. I did well enough in my freshman English class to be put into an advanced class for my sophomore year, but not well enough to be put into the top honors English section. Competition for the honors section was fierce as it came with a grade point average sweetener. I was very fortunate to be upgraded to the honors section for my junior year. That’s when the fun began.

Mrs. Fine was the teacher. She was elegant, dignified, erudite, and perhaps a tad unusual. I was a competitive student who always got straight A’s and really wanted an A in this class to boost my class rank.

The workload in Mrs. Fine’s honors class was crushing. It seemed we would have to read and analyze an entire novel or play every week. She would think nothing of assigning us to read 250 pages of Moby Dick in one night. Or maybe we would have to read an entire play by Henrik Ibsen and be ready to discuss it the next day. Even though I was a good reader, it was very hard to keep up with the work, given my other classes.

I got a B in the first marking period, the only stain on my otherwise perfect report card. I lacked confidence that I could get an A in this class. Many of my classmates seemed much more insightful than me during the discussion times. Still, I was determined to push on.

We generally were required to submit a typewritten paper once a week for the class. As I recall, the specified topics were quite sophisticated. They were a far cry from ‘what I did for my summer vacation’ stuff. Mrs. Fine would go over our papers with her red pen. Any grammar or spelling errors were quickly flushed out. But she also would give extensive feedback on matters of style or content. If she really liked something you wrote, she would let you know that as well.

Somehow, my writing and class contributions improved enough that I received an ‘A’ for the second of four marking periods. Since only the final grade counted toward class rank, I still had a chance.

Over the course of the year, I was required to read an astonishing number of diverse pieces of literature and write dozens of papers, including a large term paper. To say I learned a lot from Mrs. Fine’s teaching and detailed feedback would be a great understatement. When I emerged from her class with the coveted ‘A’ as my final grade, I was changed. I had a new confidence in my upgraded writing skills, thanks to the arduous course Mrs. Fine had directed me through.

In college, I took one term of honors English. It was so easy compared to what I had experienced in high school it seemed almost laughable. One of my high school classmates, a respected attorney who graduated from a prestigious college, has stated that Mrs. Fine was a better teacher than any professor he had both as an undergraduate and as a law student.

Throughout my career, I have been confident in my writing skills. It has been part of my “brand” as an engineer since the beginning and I’ve always felt comfortable highlighting those skills on my resume. I’ve gravitated to assignments that required considerable writing. Lots of engineers prefer to avoid that kind of work. I trace my confidence and interest back to Mrs. Fine and what I learned in her intense English class. The skills I learned in high school from her class served me more in my career than anything I picked up in any of my college engineering classes.

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