Conjuring Willa Cather
A Teacher on the Magic of Good Examples
This is how you do it. Watch.” Kids will do what we show them. Thirty-six years of rearing a big family and teaching elementary and college students have taught me that our children will learn anything that is modeled—good, bad, or indifferent.
At the end of her first week of nursery school, my daughter Sarah came home, hoisted Curious George up to the side of her head, pages open as if to an invisible audience, and pretended to read. She chatted her way through the story, paused to ask questions, giggled, and, that book finished, picked up another. Holding the open book out to the side of her pigtail, she began again.
“What are you doing Sarah?” her dad asked.
“I’m reading out of my ear,” she replied primly. “That’s the way we do it at school.”
So the challenge is to model wisely.
But what of the teacher who does not model? Ecologists dread something called “trophic cascade,” a situation in which, say, the cougar, a chief carnivore, disappears from the top of the food chain, and its absence causes disarray below. The food chain crumbles, and disruption reigns. The toppled cougar and his ilk are considered “keystone” species. It is like that with teaching and learning. We do not teach our children wisely or well if certain keystone stances are not topmost in our minds and hearts.
Modeling is one of those keystone precepts. The only thing worse than faulty modeling is a teacher who does not credit the power of modeling. Allow me to elaborate.
As a senior in high school, I sought and hoarded Willa Cather nuggets as if I were a squirrel sensing a hard winter. I read My Ántonia, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and A Lost Lady during one three-week stretch. Cather’s strong characters gripped me. I studied how she showed her love of the land and her struggles with nature, her family, and the past. I copied my favorite passages onto snippets of paper and slipped them in my pockets. I taped them to the inside covers of my Algebra 2 textbook and traced them as if they were Braille during a lull in the quadratic equations. I mulled them over. I rolled them around in my mouth.
Before I wrote for school, I reread my favorite Cather excerpts. I peered at the dog-eared pages and underlined passages multiple times. Then I tucked her to one side and wrote. I tried to write as she did. As I drafted, her words echoed. Like a hawk riding the thermals, I was somewhere in my writing I could never have been on my own. In the beginning, Paul McCartney had Buddy Holly; I had Willa Cather.
This is not to say that what I wrote was any good. What I was doing was exercising my writing muscle. I was attending to craft and tuning in to structure and tone. The Zen Buddhists would say that Cather was the bamboo pole for my creative snake.
Until Mrs. Twining’s fiat, that is.
Mrs. Twining was the head of the English department at my high school and always taught the honors-track seniors. During World War II, she had been in the Women’s Army Corps, and she still held herself as if she had a yardstick down her back. Her trademark gesture was to inhale, draw back her shoulders, and iron her already flat stomach with her hand. I was wary of her and her stern manner. I hoped she would not take aim at me. Up to then, she had left me alone.
That day, she handed back a short piece I had done on my favorite tree. I had written about the “wide-hipped” apple tree in our backyard lot. I had a fabulous time composing. I studied how Willa Cather described trees, and I parsed her writing. I wanted every word to show. I placed my phrases and clauses as she did. I shaped my paragraphs as if she were there coaching me from the sidelines. I looked at my tree and described it better than I ever had described anything before.
Mrs. Twining stood in front of me, her straight skirt forming a right angle to the swirl of books on my desk, my Willa Cathers coexisting with the algebra and French texts. She tapped my paper and inhaled. Then, with her fingers held like pincers, as if she did not want to touch more of it than she had to, she extracted one of the Cathers. She fingered its pages. “Patricia,” she said, pausing to smooth her stomach, “we don’t do this. No more Willa Cather.”
And that was that. For several weeks, if I found myself clipping my sentences like Hemingway, or using the gerund in a prior sentence to start my next sentence like E.B. White, or lower-casing everything like e.e. cummings, I’d pull myself up short, cross it all out, and start again, on my own. But I would feel lightweight and lost, like a boat whose ballast has been ditched.
Frustrated and confused, I brought my problem to my father. In our family, Dad was the one who knew things about writing. Help sessions happened in the den, while he was trying to catch a catnap, pillow over his face, bowtie tucked in his shirt pocket.
I told him about Mrs. Twining and Willa Cather. I heard him take a deep breath. He flipped the pillow up and looked me in the eye.
“What happens around here when I’m working on a summation?”
“A summation?” I asked.
“You know, at the end of a trial? When I’m preparing my final pitch to the jury?”
“Uh … we have to be quiet?”
“No, what do I have you kids find for me?”
“Oh,” I exclaimed, remembering. “We have to scrounge up that special version of the Bible and some book on Abraham Lincoln.”
“That’s right,” he said. “Do you know why?”
When I didn’t, he told me.
“I have favorite parts of the King James Version that I reread for the cadence,” he said, “and of Sandburg’s Lincoln for the words. I read them over and over for a while before I start writing. I want them in my mind.”
“Like what I did with Willa Cather?” I asked.
“Like what you do with Willa Cather.”
Decades after the “Twining Incident,” I was working on a speech I was to give to a banquet hall of my peers. Worried about it, I called Dad long-distance. I needed an opener, a hook. He listened as I outlined my ideas and said he would get back to me.
A few days later, I received an envelope into which he had tucked a form letter from the Boston Symphony Annual Fund. Dad had circled the first three sentences:
Suppose for just a moment that this was your letter to write. What would your first sentence be? I’m curious to know because in many ways you’re as qualified for this task as I am.
In the margin, Dad had scrawled: “Try this model.” He’d crossed out the word letter, and penciled in the word speech,crossed out the word write, and inserted the word make. I used it for my opening lines.
Dad drove down to attend the dinner and watch me give my speech. After delivering the opener, I looked up and caught his eye. He winked.
We talked afterwards.
“That worked OK, I thought.”
“Just right.” Dad paused, his hand going inside his suit jacket to the inside pocket. “I’ve got something here.” He extracted an accordion-folded bumper sticker. Placing it on the table, he began prying the folds apart to smooth it flat. “After I sent you the symphony model, I kept seeing other ways to shape the lead.” He gave his full attention to the bumper sticker, trying not to tear it. The sticker’s adhesive side had partially peeled from the protective strip.
He held the sticker down straight so we could read it. “This would have worked, too, I think.” We studied it together. I nodded. It was one of those bumper stickers that said: If you can read this, thank a teacher.
Dad looked up, “Save it for another time.”
Sweet is the camaraderie of a learning community that values the power of a good model. We are fellow seekers who delight in both the search and the discovery. To document this, The New York Times recently asked authors to describe the “hum” inside their heads. The paper wanted to know about writers and the books that influenced them. Implicit throughout was the idea that not only does every learner need a model, but a good one at that.
Models provide the hum, whether they are models from books or actual demonstrations from a live human. Teaching without valuing models causes our own educational version of trophic cascade. Not good.
Vol. 25, Issue 03, Pages 35, 37Published in Print: September 14, 2005, as Conjuring Willa Cather