Winter’s grace

By: Leon Smith - Contributing columnist

It was summer, I was sitting in a test on English Literature, and though the air conditioning was working quite well, my Old Spice had long ago said “uncle.” Old Man Winter warned us the first day of class what we were in for: four weeks of intense study of his favorite writers — the boring Victorians, who would use four words when two would do.

Our first test would have only a short speech from anywhere in “Jude the Obscure,” then Winter would ask what happened just before this scene, where this scene was located, who was speaking, who was spoken to, and what happened as a result .

But I didn’t let Old Man Winter scare me; he was just an assistant professor with a Master’s degree in a profession where only the learned doctors got respect. He looked old to me, weighed at about 160 pounds, much of which was accounted for by the size of his nose, which colored his speech with a Pennsylvania twang. Mostly, Winter taught freshman grammar and composition, irritating the functionally illiterate by banning dictionaries, then taking a full 25 percent off for each misspelled word.

The book he assigned us was a green and white paperback of 325 pages. “There is no way I can read ‘Jude the Obscure’ in six days,” I said, as I thumbed through the novel.

So instead of reading it, I read over it, believing the speed-reader’s promise: that the quicker the speed-reading, the more I would understand, and the more I understood, the more I would remember. I finished the book the day before the test. After reading the test item, I began to daydream.

“I wonder why I’m taking a graduate course in English anyway,” I thought. “I don’t mind English that much, but I don’t really like it that much either: because I can spell and write as well as the next slacker, and have been reading since first grade.” My heart was in wood shop using a Delta band saw; in my room tinkering with a Globe radio, or under the oak tree working on my Model A Ford.

When I got into college, I liked Betty Crocker physics better than English class, in which I was docked a letter grade because I could only squeak out “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara after my fashion,” at my assigned recitation. After I finished college, I produced short TV programs about crops and farm animals for a year before I agreed that “Smith needs to improve his writing skills,” and made my way across campus to the English Department, hoping to enter their grad program.

“Let me see,” said Dr. Saxon, looking over my transcript. “You were not an English major and your transcript is less than stellar.” Then he looked up at me. “We might take mercy on you,” he said, “if you excel in two advanced courses in English.

“Between you and I …” I began.

“Between you and me,” Dr. Saxon said, with a blank expression.

“Between you and me …,” I continued.

“Go on,” he commanded.

“I did not think I had a chance.”

I signed up for the first class, attended it for five days, and now sat reading Professor Winter’s instructions for the first test. “’It do seem like the judgment,’ is a quotation from ‘Jude the Obscure,’” Winter’s directions read. ”Write, in proper English, who was speaking, who was being spoken to, what happened before these words were spoken, and what happened afterward.”

My mind would have gone amnesic had it had something to amnese. Winter had kept his promise; my self-taught Evelyn Wood approach had not done so. The careful-reading English majors were breezing through that test as fast as swallowed mercury through the high school clown.

After they all left, I strained out words like these, “There was this person, who said ‘It do seem like the Judgment’ when he watched the clerks in their white wigs marching from the House of Commons toward the Parliament in London. He thought they looked like the angels at the time of the Last Judgment. “

As soon as I stumbled out of that test, I took out my paperback and searched until I found “Little Father Time,” a troubled child who spoke those words to his parents. They were watching an academic procession at a college modeled after Oxford University.

I don’t remember Old Man Winter’s written comments. But if learning can be measured in degree of behavior change, I learned a great deal from taking his test. Speed-reading was over for me. Instead I would read every word of every page, looking up the ones I didn’t know, and filling every flyleaf with quotes and page numbers as I went along.

In the next novel, “Barchester Towers,” the town’s parson had earned the nickname “Mr. Quiverfull.” I laughed when I learned the parson had 14 minor dependents, then marveled that Trollope could put so much information into a 10-letter name. I also began to understand that there is always a right word — an ideal one for which there is no substitute — in every situation, and that the careful writer has the duty to find that illusive term.

“Show, don’t tell,” was an oft-repeated maxim in class, to be demonstrated in a scene in which a young couple drove off for their honeymoon in a buggy. Just past the edge of town, the groom reined the horse in, stepped down to the ground, and proceeded to take off his pants. Stripped to his skivvies, he walked to his wife‘s side of the buggy.

“Do you want to wear these?”

“No” she said. “Of course not. You wear them.”

I forgot the title of the book, but I remember that such a dramatic scene is worth a jillion words. I was beginning to see that novels had a use after all.

Poetry, I still considered useless because at the age of seven I read “The Black Lagoon” in a children’s book of poems. I didn’t know what doggerel meant then, but I recognized it when I saw it. The poem was notable only for its shortcomings: no pirates, no wild hogs, no coconuts falling and conking moles on the head, only black and motionless water. “If this is what poetry is about, “I thought. “ I want nothing to do with it.”

In high school, that awful “Invictus,” did nothing to change my mind: “Out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods there be for my unconquerable soul.“

“Shame on you, Henley,” I thought. “If you can’t say something useful, you should just keep your mouth shut. “

But when Winter introduced us to Robert Browning’ s dramatic monologues, I laughed at “The Bishop Orders His Tomb,“ when it occurred to me that this supposedly celibate churchman had fathered the young men with whom he was rehearsing his funeral. I admired Browning’s choosing to paint this character by implication, leaving work for careful readers.

In “Andrea del Sarto,” Browning’s Renaissance painter found himself a marvelous technician, able to capture a face with photographic precision, but unable to paint the human behind the face. I saw del Sarto realize his shortcoming when he said, “Ah, but a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”

And so the semester went. At the end, I got a B — aka the graduate C — but after taking another class, now totally forgotten, Dr. Sax allowed me continue my studies. I never had another class with William Winter, M.A., but I have not forgotten him.

For of the many good teachers I have had since then, none compares to Mr. Winter, who showed me, by experience, that reading is neither quick nor easy; that it involves slow, careful, and intense concentration, making handwritten records while reading, then studying those notes after the book is finished. And he only hinted at the fact that by attempting to write, I would recover memories I did not even know I had retained.

I offer these lines in his honor:

Now I’m walking through the Good Book … Camping with the Master…

I can see His very face.

‘Cause that Summer … He sent William Winter

To give this Needy, some Winter’s Grace.

Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.

Leon Smith

Contributing columnist