As I’ve alluded to before, my high school program was pretty sweet. Its enriched program, which I was in, was challenging and fun, and meant that we had the best teachers at the school teaching us. Many of them were older, and most have since retired to lives of contemplation, pigeon racing (seriously!), poetry, and music. The youth of today don’t know what they’re missing.
I learned a lot in high school: a strong basis in chemistry and the physical sciences, the ability to play the french horn, a remarkable willingness to dissect deceased vertebrates without wearing gloves (why didn’t they give us gloves?), a general understanding of archery, a weirdly in-depth knowledge of the history of Quebec, and the ability to throw a football, among others.
Throwing a football has come in handy (my boyfriend’s brother, who played football in college, was impressed, for instance), but the thing that comes to mind most often, particularly as I’ve started writing professionally, is a lesson I learned first in Grade 7, and then again in Grade 11, when Mister Holt was my English teacher.
Mister Holt is a fantastic teacher. I say ‘is’, because, while I understand that he has retired, the lessons he taught me have stuck. One of the core components of English at my high school was public speaking. Most teachers made their students get up in front of the class and give a speech that they’d written. There was usually a list of topics. I recall “Nature versus Nurture” being one, as well as “Mass Media”. (It was obviously the late 90s / early 00s.) Mister Holt didn’t hold with that kind of hokum for we young grade sevens: he made us learn card tricks. Card tricks, he said, gave you something to do with your hands, while also forcing you to speak, and to keep your audience’s attention. He handed out a twenty-page photocopied packet of papers that detailed a bunch of card tricks: I remember Wild Bill Hickok’s Hand and Houdini’s Double Talk Card Trick as the hardest. They both required a great deal of memorization, and the ability to engagingly tell the story that went along with the cards. I’m 90% sure I can still do Houdini’s Double Talk, but I never really got the hang of Wild bill. After two weeks of practice, we performed the card tricks one-on-one with Mister Holt. It was delightful, and a nice way to ease into the world of public speaking. Come grade eight, the concept of speaking was far less terrifying – it’s not like you had cards to screw up!
But, while that stands out, and – I think – helps to illustrate his somewhat unconventional approach to English education, card tricks are not what come to mind most days.
Mister Holt hated the word ‘got’. Got, he argued, was a lazy word. There is almost always a better word to express what you are trying to express. “I got home”, while perhaps accurate, is weaker than “I arrived home”. “I got an A” less expressive than “I earned an A”, “I’ve got the chicken pox” less evocative than “I have fallen ill with the chicken pox” or “I’m beset with the chicken pox” or “Shit, I’ve finally caught the chicken pox”.
As I recall, Mister Holt was a published writer of either short stories or poetry. I can’t find any trace of that online, so perhaps I’m mistaken, but in any case, much of our writing was of a creative nature. As such, using strong descriptive language was particularly prized. As we started writing more essays, precision of language only
got became more important. I asked some friends from high school about this, and everyone who had Mister Holt as a teacher seems to have a little voice in the back of their heads preventing them from writing ‘got’ or ‘get’. My friend who just finished law school is particularly susceptible.
As a tech writer, precision of language is everything. The other day I was typing a sentence, started to write ‘got,’ and said “No!”. An moment later, I had gone in a different direction. Teachers impact our lives: Mister Holt taught me the value of choosing my words carefully (and I always have a card trick up my sleeve for parties, pun intended); Madame Azar, the majority of my French grammar; and Mister Pharès taught so much math and physics that I didn’t learn anything new until Calc 3, despite the three post-secondary math classes that preceded it.
I don’t write in French that much these days, though, and I haven’t needed to integrate in a long while… I write every day, though, and two university degrees don’t consciously impact me nearly as much as two years’ of Mister Holt’s instruction does. So, next time you go to type ‘got’, stop. Reread your sentence, and try to replace that ‘got’ with something better. Your writing will improve, and alumni of Mister Holt’s English classes won’t twitch when reading your wise words.