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The Rankin file

6 or 7 of us. I had one helluva senior English class. My teacher was Elaine Rankin, and we were the Rankin file, all 6 or 7 of us: the very top end of the top stream in B. Frank Brown's non-graded high school, Melbourne High in Melbourne, Fla.

Streams. The streams were a system for sorting kids by learning ability. B. Frank Brown's mission was to give slow learners a big boost via lots of hands-on help in small classes. But if you sort by learning ability you also get groups on the other end of the spectrum; we were in the far-right tail of that particular distribution.

American lit. Officially, we were an American lit class. OK, that's a nice rich field; plenty of fun to be had there. But here's the kicker: we were constrained to antebellum US lit, more precisely American literature, 1600-1850. Elaine visibly rolled her eyes as she told us. There are a few; the transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau and others too meager to mention. Hawthorne, Longfellow, Poe, Cooper and, uh, uh... Philip Freneau. Yeah. Always a treat. More on him later.

Writing class. Well no matter. Elaine's mission was to teach us the art of writing. She could work with anything and still do that. In one topsy-turvy year, Elaine taught me how to write. Four days a week we had class in a regular classroom as part of a larger group of smart kids. The Rankin File was the top-end subgroup, and once a week the 6 or 7 of us met with her for a longer session around the big trapezoidal table in the library conference room.

Fluency drills. We dutifully (hah) studied antebellum authors, but from the very start Elaine made us write, write, write. Her key exercise for aspiring writers was the fluency drill. Using any given topic, you wrote for a set period of time, generally 5-15 minutes. The fluency drill had one rule: you had to keep the pen moving on paper, no matter what. If you didn't have anything to say, write that. If this exercise was driving you crazy, ditto. You could just write "Blah blah blah" or "Nanana can't hear you." No matter what, you had to keep the pen moving, keep writing, aiming back at your topic if you could cuz that would be way more interesting than blah. It was an agonizing and liberating exercise.

Typing. In 1968, a keyboard version of that didn't even occur to me; that's not how you did writing. Typing was just a job that typists did. But in an early manifestation of my wisdom, I took typing that year. There were no other boys in the touch typing class; why would they? But I took typing, so I had a leg up when this computer business got going 20 years later.

Chalkboard art. One advantage of meeting in the ordinary classroom was having our own chalkboard. Soon after the year got underway, a competition developed: someone would sneak into the classroom and put something funny or artistic up on the chalkboard. We had some impressive chalkboard artists among us, me not included. But I appreciated others' work. When we read Mr. Freneau's dreadful poetry, the chalkboard greeted us with a public announcement: "Philip Freneau, your poetic license has expired."

Psalm. Elaine made us really dig into the lit. We spent what seemed like an inordinate amount of time analyzing one of Longfellow's poems, A Psalm of Life," which begins:

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!—
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

It's the poem that gave us the phrase "footprints on the sands of time." It became quite the sensation in its day, such that "Longfellow biographer Charles Calhoun noted it had risen beyond being a poem and into a cultural artifact" (from the WP article). You can read the whole thing here, if you like that kind of thing.

Elaine had one brilliant question for us: who are the mournful numbers? What is this poem in response to? She wouldn't give us any help, and it took a lot of coordinated digging in the library, but we finally came up with what she considered the right answer: skeptical philosophy, personified in Longfellow's day by David Hume.

The big assignment. One day Elaine told us to write a one-line basic description of a character: age, gender, a couple other basic details. We passed that sheet to the next student, who added another character after reading what was there. Pass and repeat for a total of three characters, each added by a different student.

MacGuffin. We passed again, adding an object, then again and she told us to keep that sheet. So we each had a sheet with three characters and an object, all added by different classmates. The big assignment of the year was to write a short story based on whatever was on that piece of paper. The next few weeks we did multiple fluency drills in class on each character and the object. Our ongoing homework was to forge the fluency drills into a story.

Amal. I wrote a story based in Kenya. I had an 11-year-old boy, and my object was an pendant. The 11-year-old was my protagonist, a Muslim boy named Amal. My father had taken me to Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors in Asheville.

The challenge. We turned in our stories toward the end of the year. Mine was a mess, a sheaf of handwritten loose sheets with lots of crossouts, text circled with arrows showing where to move it, etc etc. One day in the last week of school Elaine stopped me as I was leaving class, saying she had something for me. She dug into the huge satchel she used to carry books and student work around, and pulled out a sheaf of legal-size paper about a half-inch thick and handed it to me. She had typed out my entire draft, triple spaced to give me plenty of room to work on it. The way you worked on drafts in the days before word processing. Even for a fast typist, which I'm sure she was, that was a lot of work. She looked at me over her glasses and told me it was good, very good. She'd spent her hours typing up the draft to encourage me to finish it, and she didn't want me to waste my time submitting it to literary journals. She said there were only two candidates, The New Yorker and The Atlantic. I was stunned, overwhelmed.

I carried that sheaf of foolscap around with me for many years. I never worked on it, because, well, making a living, falling in love. I wasn't interested in being literary; I was just doing the assignment. I did recognize the quality of what I'd written. It was a good yarn with a mercilessly ambiguous ending, designed to make you feel like you'd been stabbed in the guts. But what she produced, and imprinted on me with that sheaf, was a pretty decent writer, her creation.