It was my Junior year at Grant High School and my English teacher terrified me. You might laugh upon reading that sentence but there are probably a lot of alumni out there that have similar feelings toward Ruth Alcorn.
Ruth Alcorn was an institution at Grant. When I took her AP English class she was already impossibly old, especially to a 16-year-old know it all like myself. Although it was well over twenty years ago, I still remember my first day in her class. Ms. Alcorn began writing a series of phone numbers on the chalk board and then proceeded to give us all very detailed instructions of what to do if she had a heart attack during class. That got our attention.
One of the phrases she used quite often with us was “if you please.” When you heard that phrase it normally meant you were to immediately stop whatever you were doing and pay attention to her. Right now. It also meant that you were probably going to be in a lot of trouble. Not the type of trouble that revolved around detention or notes to parents – it meant utter intellectual humiliation. The woman was incredibly bright.
My wife and I occasionally watch “Gross Pointe Blank” with John Cusack. It revolves around a 10 year high school reunion and some really dark humor. There is a scene in the movie where John Cusack returns to his high school and runs into his old English teacher. He asks if she is still teaching Ethan Fromme, which in my opinion has to be one of the all time most depressing pieces of fiction ever written. John Cusack said something similar in the movie. I will high five Mr. Cusack should our paths ever meet.
When I look back at my four years at Grant, I still can’t believe how good the English program was. I could bore you with the titles of books that we read but I doubt that would have much of an impression. Suffice it to say that college English was easier than my high school classes.
Quite frankly, I was completely overmatched in Ms. Alcorn’s class. Each time report cards were about to be handed out, I was positive I would be flunking her class. I never understood how I managed to eke out a B in her class each semester. As far as I know, it’s the only B I’ve ever received in an English class but it felt more rewarding than any A in any subsequent class.
During one class in particular we were discussing symbolism in The Scarlet Letter and I was utterly frustrated. Every sentence seemed to be an exam and full of hidden meanings that I couldn’t comprehend. In a display of shere stupidity, I blurted out “green seaweed is green seaweed.” At first there was silence but I’m sure you can already guess the reaction from the teacher: “Mark, if you please!” Rest in peace Ruth Alcorn.