October 30, 2007 - "I've just sent off the manuscript of my latest book to the printers. It is called, A Way With Words; One Writer's Journey. I thought perhaps this chapter, about my high school experiences, might make interesting reading in one of the upcoming newsletters." - Andy Little (Class of 1953)
There is a time in every childhood when
a door opens and the future is revealed.
~ Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
Like millions of other young boys, my introduction to reading on my own came via the comic books. I devoured them and wished I could emulate the superheroes. Superman, Captain Marvel, Terry and the Pirates - the list is endless. And like millions of other boys before me, my first text only books were the adventures of The Hardy Boys. I recall one entire Christmas day spent reading the latest account of Joe, Frank and their chubby chum, Chet Morton.
My grades in elementary school were average. Whether this was a true reflection of my intellect or my aversion to homework is an open question. My marks were always well above the pass level. The area where I excelled was composition. I'd been read to and was familiar with books. So it was a simple matter to take my facility with spoken words to the printed page. What was troubling was my grasp of grammar. I could write well and follow the rules, but had trouble remembering the definitions of those rules. In the composition exam, the marks were divided equally between story writing and grammar definitions. It was not uncommon for me to get forty-five out of fifty on the story portion of the exam and thirty on the grammar. But my grade eight teacher, Miss Organ, complained that all my compositions were based on real life experiences. She was the first teacher who pushed me to "make up stories" and while I was never entirely comfortable doing so, I did venture in her class, for the first time, into pure fiction. None of these compositions gave me the satisfaction I felt when writing about something that had actually happened.
Many years later, as an adult, I met Miss Organ by chance and we talked about my reluctance to write fiction."I guess, even then," she said, "you were more interested in practicing journalism."
My teacher the following year, Mrs. Wilde, didn't insist on fiction. She asked us to compose an essay about our summer vacation. I'd been to a camp in the Laurentian Mountains, north of Montreal. So I wrote an account of my time there and handed it in. A couple of days later Mrs. Wilde gave back the compositions. Everyone in the class received their papers and there was the usual buzz as people compared marks. I looked around, a little bewildered, because I had not received my composition. I was about to raise my hand to mention this when Mrs. Wilde silenced the class with the sharp tap of a ruler on her desk.
She rose, stood at the blackboard and spoke. "As you know," she said, "I expect the best from you in everything you do." She wasn't smiling and there was some nervous shuffling of feet. "In some subjects perfection is possible," she continued, "Geometry, for example. But in English Composition it is very rare. There are so many little things that can trip you up. However today I am happy to say I have an example, one of the few times when, as a teacher, I have given a student a perfect mark for a composition."She paused, then looked down at me.
"Andy, would you please come up to the front of the class?"
Shocked, but tingling with excitement, I rose from my desk and approached Mrs. Wilde. She handed me my assignment.
"I'd like you to read your composition aloud for the class."
It had all happened so quickly I had no time to be nervous. I can still remember the first sentence.
There is something about twilight in the mountains you never feel in the city.
When I finished, Mrs. Wilde indicated I should return to my desk. I noticed for the first time the mark. It was "10/10" written in red ink and on the last page were the words, "Well done!"
The summer when I was fourteen I had an experience that taught me how powerful the pen could be – in an unexpected way. I was a Boy Scout and wanted to acquire something called "The Bushman's Thong". Back then the word "thong" did not have the same connotation it has today. It was a badge you earned, not something you wore on the beach. To earn this badge you had to take a three-day hike or canoe trip. Since an older friend wanted his Bushman's Thong as well and owned a canoe, we decided we would follow the route of the early explorers and paddle up the St. Lawrence River from St. Lambert through the Lachine Rapids to Chateauguay. We figured it would take us two days to get there and another day to get back. Fortunately for me the friend, Fleming Rasmussen, was over six feet tall and as strong as an ox. You don't, we discovered, paddle up the Lachine Rapids. Even keeping close to the shoreline we found the current was simply too strong. So Fleming tied a rope to the bow and waded through the water, pulling the canoe, while I pushed from the stern. It was exhausting work and by the end of the first day we were about half way up the rapids and darkness was setting in. So we made a hasty and uncomfortable camp on a small island, ate a cold supper and crawled into our sleeping bags. Stiff and sore, we awoke at first light and went back into the water, pushing and pulling.
On the afternoon of the second day we were finally in calmer waters and were able to paddle again. We came upon a man fishing from a rowboat and he invited us to camp out in his backyard in Chateauguay. We did and his wife made us a hearty breakfast of pancakes the next morning. We thanked them and pushed the canoe back into the water for the return trip. There would be no wading this time– we were going to shoot the rapids. Both of us were strong swimmers so our main concern was keeping the canoe from capsizing. Well, we flew down those churning waters in a matter of minutes and, with Fleming steering in the stern we made it, wet but upright to the Laprairie Basin and eventually back to St.Lambert. We congratulated ourselves on a successful trip and set about writing an account of the adventure. You can probably guess the rest. My purple prose did me in.
As the St. Lawrence narrowed and we approached the rapids I was aware of a sound that sent chills down my spine. It was the whispered roar of the river churning over rocks. The current quickened and there was no time to change course. Soon we were caught in the cauldron of the Lachine Rapids where only one sixteenth of an inch of cedar and canvas separated us from the raging waters of the St. Lawrence.
Purple indeed. It not only failed to impress the scoutmaster, but earned us a reprimand for needlessly risking our lives. No Bushman's Thong for either of us. I had learned the hard way that while the pen might be mightier than the sword, it cut both ways.
That same year I discovered the writing of Ernest Hemingway. Here, for the first time, was someone who seemed to combine fiction with real life experiences. Like so many young people of my generation, I thought Hemingway's writing was simple, something I could emulate. It would be a number of years before I understood that this simplicity was the result of painstaking discipline applied to a wealth of natural talent. The Nick Adams short stories, particularly "The Big Two Hearted River", are among the few works I revisit to this day. His work seemed so simply written, clear and to the point. Hemingway became a hero, a man whose life was as exciting as his writing. Emerging from a plane crash in the African jungle with only "a bunch of bananas and a bottle of gin." Epic stuff.
Another writer, Somerset Maugham, gave me the courage to break loose from my tendency to describe only what I'd experienced first hand. He inspired me to write a short story called "The White Suit", which began this way.
Another hot, humid, and oppressive day was drawing to a close. The denseness of the tropical undergrowth became lost in the rising of the night mist, diffusing the blackness of the jungle into a gray, sultry mass. There was a deep silence, charging the air with foreboding. The only sound was that of the softly falling rain which padded rhythmically on the bamboo walls of the construction shack.
Unsure of its quality, I had asked my friend Bryce Weir to read it. He made some valid suggestions for improvement and I realize now, looking back, that he was my first editor. There would be many more editors in a lifetime of writing and I would serve as editor myself on countless other occasions. I would learn that a good editor is essential to good writing.
"The White Suit" was included in the high school yearbook. It was the first time I'd seen my work in print.
Author's footnote: I wrote Bertha Wilde and sent her an early account of the chapter from A Way With Words about her importance in my early development as a writer. She replied a few weeks later saying my letter, "Made one very old woman's day." I'd felt guilty that during my brief visit to the '95 reunion I didn't have time to thank her personally, but fortunately my letter reached her before her death. - Andy