I took three years of honors English in high school. Freshman through junior year. It was expected that if you took three years of honors English that you’d take World Lit, where honors and A English came together as one, your senior year. I did not. I didn’t care for the teacher and frankly, my brain had had enough. I took Sci-Fi and Mythology classes instead.
Best choice I made considering I ended up working forty hours a week that year and between that, the only two hard classes I did have (physics and pre-calculus), and the extra work I put into our final play for theater arts class, I wouldn’t have had the time to devote to World Lit, though I doubt it could have been harder than honors English.
I don’t believe I’ll ever take a class harder than honors English. I could take quantum physics, not understand a damn word the teacher said, and still thing it was better than my freshman year final in honors English.
I’m not joking. My teacher was a taskmaster, an absolute tyrant when it came to honors English. Everything she did was to prepare us for college, she said, and in the three times I’ve been to community college, I never had anything come close to what she put us through. The class was so hard, the teacher so demanding that we never had more than eleven kids in our class. In fact, it was the biggest class. I think by junior year, we only had eight.
Don’t think so?
My freshman final was to write three five paragraph themes answering questions covering three of the four books we’d read that year. We had an hour and a half to get it done. The questions involved exploring themes, symbolism, and all that good literary junk. The books we read that year were Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mocking Bird, A Tale of Two Cities, and The Scarlet Letter.
Sophomore year we read a few Shakespeare plays, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth. In anticipation to the reading of two of these plays, we had to write a five paragraph theme pertaining to the play in question. In class. Fifty minutes. That’s all the time we got. One theme was on the word maturity. The other theme was on the word ambition. That’s right. We were expected to write a fully developed, edited, five paragraph theme in fifty minutes on a single word.
Sophomore year also featured the required research paper all English classes had to write. Twenty pages on a controversial topic, presenting both sides without bias, in correct MLA format. And notecards! Fifty properly formatted research notecards had to be turned in as well. And to make sure that education stuck, we ended up doing a couple of ten page papers the same way our junior year.
We had ten vocabulary words to memorize a week for three years. The words were given to us on Monday. We had to present definitions on Tuesday. The test was on Friday.
We did independent grammar study on Mondays. That’s right. We were responsible for teaching ourselves and each other grammar (the teacher helped when needed, of course). We were then tested once a quarter. If everyone didn’t pass to her liking, we risked going back to having formal lessons.
It was like boot camp every day for three years.
And it was the best thing ever for me as a writer.
I didn’t realize it at the time when I was being put through my paces, but this hardcore teacher was doing more than prepping me for college. She gave me many of the tools I was going to need to survive a writing career. She taught me organization, attention to detail, how to revise (really gave me the best advice on that), the importance of word choice, the importance of doing it right, and how and when to settle for calling a piece done.
I hated it at the time, but I love that I went through it now.
I saw my honors English teacher in the post office the other day. I doubt she remembers me (it’s been 15 years since my last class with her), but I recognized her on site. Her beehive is still intact, though a little grayer. She still looks a bit like a bird, small and pointy. And I bet she’s still running kids through her honors English gauntlet with the same toughness she did when I was in her class.
I hope those kids eventually come to appreciate it as much as I do now.