For sixteen years Don W. King has served as Editor of the Christian Scholar’s Review. In the second of three short reflections as he completes his service to CSR effective May 1, 2015, he reflects upon how a teacher and poet influenced his life as a scholar. Mr. King is Professor of English at Montreat College.
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read but cursorily; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.—From “Of Studies” (1597) by Sir Francis Bacon
I never planned on being an English major in college. Nor did I think I would spend my career as a college professor. And I certainly didn’t think I would spend roughly a third of my professional life as the editor of an academic journal. Like many of the neighborhood boys I grew up with, I dreamed of becoming a professional football player. Or baseball player. Or basketball player. I followed dutifully the sports career I thought was sure to come my way. These dreams gradually eroded away. I was too short for basketball, too slow for baseball, and too blockable for football. I will never forget the many times as a linebacker that I found myself hitting the ground just about the time our defensive back would call out, “Crackback, crackback!” And then my back would indeed hit the ground and the runner would whiz past me unimpeded. In addition, when I played tight end, did I have soft hands? Not exactly—my nickname was “Stonefingers.”
But dreams die hard. I kept at my sports career fantasy at least as far as my freshman year in high school, although by then I had grudgingly agreed with my parents that I needed to plan some kind of “real” career. So for several years I planned on majoring in engineering; after all, I liked math. Algebra gave way to Geometry and then to Trigonometry. Numbers were quite friendly. At the same time, I also loved reading. My parents, neither of whom had graduated from high school, did a great job of exposing me to books. As early as the third grade I had developed a taste for biographies of famous people—Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and others. But my favorite was Winston Churchill; I thought then, and I still do today, that he was the greatest statesman of the twentieth century. When I wandered into our high school library during one study hall, I encountered two other writers who bowled me over. The first was Edgar Allan Poe; yes, it was the macabre that lured me in. Black cats, tell-tale hearts, and swinging pendulums ignited my imagination in ways I had not experienced before. The second was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Well before Benedict Cumberbatch came along (not to mention Jeremy Brett), I was enthralled by Sherlock Holmes. How did he always do it? Smart, bright, a bit arrogant, almost never ruffled. Poe and Doyle worked away secretly in my heart, slowly burrowing into the deepest recesses of my soul.
I entered Virginia Tech in fall 1969, intent on becoming an engineer since that was what people who loved math were supposed to do. During my freshman year I worked hard to keep up in my classes, especially the course on differential equations. I was always about 30 minutes behind my professor (it did not help that he normally lectured facing the blackboard with his back to the class as his piece of chalk squeaked and scratched across the board), so I would leave each class just barely keeping up with what was going on. Miss homework in that class? Absolutely never! I would have drowned in a sea of mathematical expressions such as x²·d²y∕dx²+x·dy∕dx+(x²-α²)y=0. I remember with chagrin the day I snuck back to my differential equations class after having marched around campus with all the other angry students shouting “Strike! Strike!” I might publicly join in the call that students stop attending classes unless our demands were met (whatever our demands were back then), but I would never risk getting behind in dx or fx. Student self-righteousness gave way to real-world pragmatism.
I soldiered on in engineering until the end of the spring quarter. Three things convinced me I would never be an engineer. First, I could not figure out how to accomplish the exercises demanded in engineering graphics. If I was assigned the chore of drawing sets of lines from several different perspectives—especially ones that required my imagination to think three-dimensionally—I was hopeless. This was before the day of computer programs that would make such an exercise either simple or unnecessary; my most sophisticated help in those days was a slide rule that I wore on my belt. Second, I learned that I was inept when it came to applying mathematics to the real world. This realization finally crystalized when I dropped physics for the third time. An engineer-to-be who avoids physics is an engineer to avoid. Third, I realized that even if I could ever reach the stage of designing a bridge, I would never be willing to drive over it. Would you trust an engineer who refused to drive over his own bridge?
So, what to do?
Fortuitously—or providentially—I had continued to take literature courses, secretly feeding an unexpressed love for stories that Poe and Doyle had fed back in high school. But major in literature? I struggled for a while with this decision, toying with mathematics, biology, and geology. Then one day I remembered my tenth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Armstrong. A retired sergeant from the marines, she stood about five foot two and had a stern, no-nonsense approach in the classroom. The first day of class—in a room filled with football jocks like me—she stood in the front of us, flexed the bicep in her right arm, looked challengingly at us, and said somewhat fiercely: “See this muscle? I can take on any one of you, so let there be no foolishness when you are in my class.” I doubt whether this classroom approach would be approved of today, but it certainly worked on us.
The most memorable day for me under Mrs. Armstrong’s tutelage was when we began a unit on poetry. The stories of Poe and Doyle were one thing, but poetry? I had about as much hope of understanding a poem as I did of exploring the North Pole. Poems were like impenetrable stone edifices—hard, unforgiving, silent, cold, and slightly mocking. So when we turned to reading the sonnets of Sir Philip Sidney, all was lost. Not only poetry, but a specialized sort—14 lines, intricate rhyme schemes, iambic pentameter (what?), octaves, sestets, quatrains, couplets, metaphors, similes, paradoxes, personifications, caesuras, enjambment. What was a budding NFL star to make of it all?
Then came the moment I dreaded. Mrs. Armstrong read aloud Sidney’s first sonnet in the series Astrophil and Stella:
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe;
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburned brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows,
And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”
“Mr. King,” she said with a mixture of sternness and pity, “please explain the essence of what Sidney is saying in this poem.” I had no idea, but stung by embarrassment and arrogance, I offered a feeble guess. “Not exactly,” she said, sympathetically. And then she took us line by line through the sonnet, opening my eyes so that I saw beyond the technical aspects of the sonnet and peered into its larger meaning. Suddenly, I “got it.” Wasn’t I just like the speaker in the poem? Wasn’t I also floundering in an adolescent love relationship, desperately trying to find the words to cause my love-of-the-week to love me back? Didn’t I look to other writers to say the words of love that I could never say? Wasn’t I “pregnant with thought,” though tongue-tied? The light bulb finally went off when I read and understood the last line: Stupid me, don’t rely on the words of others. Write and speak from your own heart!
While I may not have been able to express all that happened to me at that moment, I know that from that point forward I began to read differently. Moreover, that moment also served as the well-spring of my efforts at editing, researching, and writing. At the risk of simplifying these quite complex scholarly activities, I approach them now as reflecting aspects of a detective novel, an engaging scavenger hunt, and a challenging crossword puzzle. My reading, editing, researching, and writing all owe their birthright to what Mrs. Armstrong and Sidney’s sonnet did to me those many years ago. I do not know if I am a full man, or a ready man, or an exact man, but I do know that I am a better man because of what a teacher and a poet did to me.