A chance round of e-mails kicked off by an old friend has put me back in touch with one of my favorite high school English teachers. Richard, who has been my friend for 30 years, was tooling around the internet last week when he made a chance discovery online and started sending out messages. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was in the loop and taking a pleasant stroll down Nostalgia Boulevard, unpacking long-forgotten memories and feeling like a schoolboy again.
Harry Matrone was in his mid-thirties when I first met him. Back then, he had a shock of dark-brown, curly hair and a mustache and beard to match. The year was 1984, but he looked as though his heart was still in the 70s. He was engaging, warm and enormously enthusiastic about teaching—and learning. (It’s hard to separate one from the other, isn’t it?). The first time I saw him, I wasn’t yet a student of his. He came up behind me as I was thumbing through a dictionary in the library and remarked: “I like to see students using reference materials!”
Before the year was out, I was in Mr. Matrone’s Language Arts class. I discovered that he had an unimposing, laissez-faire approach to teaching. Rather than being imperious, he was like an older friend who knew lots more than we did about the written word. In fact, rather than the more traditional “Mr. Matrone,” we students usually simply called him “Matrone” without being thought disrespectful. I got the impression he was more interested in relationship than in proper authoritative juxtaposition. Undergirding all of it was an intense desire to impart a love of discourse to us.
The first ten minutes of each class was devoted to “fast writes,” which could be anything from short-short stories or irreverent humor to stream-of-consciousness journaling. The idea was to develop writing fluidity and to find immediate joy in written expression. Correctness and precision were secondary for the fast-writes and were left for later evaluation. Those who wished could share their fast-write with the rest of the class. The extemporaneous, free-form exercise was delightful. I remember one of the bits Richard turned out one day as he set about good-naturedly lampooning Matrone with a fast-write entitled, “He Came in Scratching His Thigh.”
Matrone wanted to expose us to higher forms of writing, including satire. To get the juices flowing, he brought in a newspaper article about Elizabeth Taylor captioned, “No More Booze or Pills.” The aging actress had checked into an elegant celebrity spin-dry facility in southern California and was grappling with life issues such as having to take out garbage or perform other menial chores. Granted, this was pretty easy stuff to make fun of (kind of like Robert Downey, Jr. coming out with a press statement: “I’ve decided to stop wandering into strange houses while I’m high on crack.”), but we had to start somewhere. Naturally, it was a blast. The material flowed almost automatically, and I remember feeling as though I had discovered something sublimely enjoyable, something that could absorb all my passion and intellectual energy. This was great fun!
Fun was the lever Matrone used to coax his students to grasp the tools of language. Even his editing rules were fun. “Editing Rules I & II” presented a series of commonly broken rules. Each item on the list contained the error it prohibited. I’ve included a list here, which has been fleshed out with some of my own:
- Don’t use no double negatives.
- Take the bull by the hand and avoid using mixed metaphors.
- Writing carefully, dangling participles should be avoided.
- No sentence fragments.
- Remember your skills stay away from run-on sentences.
- When proofreading, you’ll find on proofreading that instances of repetition can be eliminated through proofreading.
- Eschew obfuscation.
- Take the trouble to punctuate carefully, avoid comma splices.
- Irregardless of the enormity of temptations to the contrary, be careful to use words properly.
- A preposition is not a good part of speech to end a sentence with.
- Make sure your subject and verb agrees in number.
Matrone was patient with our clumsiest efforts. To him, the thing of greatest importance was that we were writing. Everything else could be dealt with in due course. I remember once bringing some wretched things to him I had haughtily entitled “Intellectual Masterpieces #1 & #2.” I can’t remember much of them, but they were little more than attempts to cram together as many $500 words as I could while maintaining some semblance of thoughtful progression. The first one began as follows:
The meticulous way in which you verbalize your prevenience results in a horrendous aberrance of the idea you seek to propitiate…
There was lots more, and it sounded like pretty fancy stuff to most of the 15- and 16-year-olds I shared them with. When I showed them to Matrone, he read them and told me calmly and without insult: “It’s double-speak. This one is better double-speak,” he added, indicating the second installment. This was one of those moments through which I learned that writing well involves maintaining a tension between the fun of tossing words around and the work of seeing that they land in the right places. So much in life involves finding the optimum point on a continuum, and I suppose teaching is no different. A good teacher must strike a balance between affirmation and criticism, and Matrone did this very well.
What a long time ago all this happened! As I think back to these events, I feel a great surge of excitement. It’s almost as though, just for a few moments, I am 16 years old again. But of course, many things have changed—for Harry Matrone as well. In 1993, he received the Milken Award in recognition of his accomplishments as a K-12 educator. In 1999 he moved away from Alaska and finally settled in Seattle, where he has climbed up the food chain and now manages programs of professional development for K-12 teachers at the University of Washington. He writes wistfully that his present work isn’t nearly as much fun as the stuff he did during the years when he was our teacher. I’m glad Matrone was enjoying himself as much as we were back then. For us it was a day at school, for him a day at work. But we were all a part of something more important that could only be seen from the distance of years.
Thank you, Harry.