St. Robert, Patron Saint of Writing Skills
Mr. Wicke. Mr. Robert Wicke (wik-ee), as in Robert Redford. One was a high school English teacher; and the other a Hollywood movie star idolized by millions of female fans. Well, the Robert I knew was Mr. Wicke—a Redford doppelgänger who was so handsome and worldly that I often forgot I was in a classroom when he spoke. I was living a “trope”-schoolgirl crush on older teacher. While learning what caused King Lear to go mad, I noticed the way he flipped his buttery blond hair after he emphasized a point. It reminded me of Redford in “The Way We Were,” when a few, rebellious wisps would escape from his side-parted locks and graze just below his eyebrows. Consistently distracted, I always tried to think of a question to ask him after class. “Excuse me, Mr. Wicke,” I would say, as I nervously reached his desk; and as he looked up, he would stare just a bit longer than what was comfortable, (although this was probably wishful thinking). Besides, he was forgiven for any faults. He looked like a prep school senior, with his elbow-patch woolen sweaters over an oxford shirt and tie, although I’m sure he was in his early 30s. And as a testament to his influence, two of my closest high school friends also became writers—one as a middle- school English teacher, and the other as an author and journalist. I pursued a writing career too, (later in life)–and we all credit Mr. Wicke and his unconventional, but disciplined writing style for inspiring us. It was in his class that I understood the reward of writing well.
On the first day of class, he announced matter-of-factly that no one ever had earned an “A” in his classes; on occasion, he might give some students a “B,” but it was rare. Many received “C’s,” and quite a few soundly saw “D” on their report cards. He explained quite casually that no one is “superior,” which is what an “A” represents; “B” meant “very good,” and “C” was average, which he considered most of us. I wasn’t sure whether to take him seriously—he could have been a poker champion in that his facial expressions never belied his intent. As an academically ambitious 17-year-old senior who hoped to be in the “top 20” at graduation, this was both a blessing and a quandary. I had a teacher who was a Robert Redford look-a-like—yet enjoyed playing mind games with a group of naïve Catholic school students.
My Wicke’s idea of a test was to take a passage from a Shakespeare text we had read, and write an analytical, three-paragraph essay in 25 minutes. With a dictionary on the corner of my desk, it was a battle against time. By the second semester, I had finally earned a “B” in the class, with the “high grade” of “84” on most papers. Many classmates often received an “F,” on their papers, because any misspellings guaranteed a failing grade. Another sin was the phrase “in conclusion.” If written to begin the last paragraph, this was also an automatic “F.” He said this was implied, so it was redundant. He required concise language and objected to flowery prose; he called wordiness “padding,” which usually resulted in a “D.” These literary “pet peeves” became an internalized template that I had memorized. And although I never received an “F” on a paper, Mr. Wicke thought that adding “Sorry!” after a failing grade would soften the blow. Students were either permanently scarred or permanently motivated.
Although I cannot remember a specific piece of writing as “rewarding”, that “B” I earned launched a writing style that I still embrace. I am still amazed at the profundity of Mr. Wicke’s influence now that I am in graduate school. Not only did I have the advantage of Mr. Redford-I mean Mr. Wicke, as a high school English teacher, the skills I learned are still relevant. Sometimes when I read “in conclusion,” on a paper, I can imagine Mr. Wicke’s handwriting in his familiar red ink, gracing the top margin—and whisper a “thank you” to my literary patron saint.