by: Charles Bolthrunis
I’m a 72 year-old guy with lots of grey hair. I imagine that most of my life is behind me. There have been many memorable moments in my life: my wedding, the birth of each of my children, graduations, deaths, the usual material that lives are made of. But there’s one simple event that most might consider quite ordinary that is still right up there among all those important moments. After almost 60 years I can see it as clearly as the day it happened. This memorable moment was my high school sophomore home room teacher approaching me one morning and making a suggestion. I’ve forgotten her name, but I can still picture her face and hear her words.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I was preparing for a future in engineering. I loved math and science; I hated English. I got A’s and B’s in the technical subjects and struggled – I mean STRUGGLED – to get C’s in English. I couldn’t stand grammar. I could never get the rules straight and diagramming sentences made no sense at all to me. I didn’t know the difference between an adverb and a preposition. Clauses and phrases had me totally baffled. It seemed all such a bore and so useless. Reading Beowulf, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Pope were unbearable. The classes seemed endless.
One morning this homeroom teacher came up to me and suggested that I sign up for honors English. I thought she was crazy. I knew she was crazy and I almost told her so. When I questioned her judgment, she explained that I had good grades in my other subjects and that she thought I would benefit from the class. Then she turned away with a sly grin on her face.
For some reason I trusted her and I signed up for honors English starting in my junior year. After about two classes, I was slightly bemused. No more sentence diagrams! No more memorizing the difference between adjectives and adverbs! No more learning rules for punctuating different types of clauses! We read stories and plays and novels. After four classes, I was sort of enjoying it. By the sixth class, I was sold. I was becoming an enthusiastic participant. Most of our classes were discussions of the literature we had read between classes. What was amazing was that there were no right or wrong answers. Every opinion had some value and the teacher actually listened to and considered what we had to say! We also learned to consider differing opinions and form our own opinions and taste. Then we polished our thoughts by writing them down. It was enjoyable to learn the rules of clear writing when you actually had something to say and wanted passionately to convince someone else.
I found that I actually did have something to say. I had opinions and I could defend them against differing opinions. I began to develop my own sense of taste and to be able to judge a good performance from a bad one. I’ll never forget the time I read a book review in the NY Times and judged that it was poorly written. I think I was sixteen at the time. I was tempted to doubt that a teenager could pass judgment on a Times writer. Yet I was sure I was right. The way he wrote violated what I had been taught about the structure and purpose of book reviews. More importantly, the article was unenlightening and difficult to read. For the first time I had made an independent judgment unsupported by a higher authority. This gave me enormous self-confidence. I could judge on my own the value of what someone else had written — even a piece published in the Times! This was a new world for me. It was a very different world from math and science where everything was simply right or wrong. In those subjects, there was no room for opinion. Value was measured only by whether the answer was correct. This was a much more subtle world of thought. It turned out to be my gateway to emotional maturity.
I went to a Shakespeare play and discovered that I actually enjoyed it. I found that after studying it in class, the words weren’t quite so strange and could understand what was going on on stage. What is more, I began to identify with the characters and their situations. I read War and Peace; not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I started to absorb grammar and punctuation, not by memorizing or drilling, but by simply reading good material and trying to put my thoughts down on paper clearly and in an interesting way.
In my high school freshman year, my father had become very ill with a heart ailment. He died just as I graduated from high school. As a matter of fact, he couldn’t come to my graduation because he was on his death-bed. For my passage into manhood, I was on my own. After all, what teenage male would ask his mother anything? Math and science weren’t much help either. I began to nurture my budding interest in literature and the arts. I got cheap single tickets to plays on and off Broadway like Shaw’s Saint Joan, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and Anouilh’s Becket. At the same time, I was reading and going to Shakespeare plays for enjoyment and enlightenment.
I saw Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 off Broadway. Just as I was reaching adulthood, I saw the conversion of Prince Hal from a dissipated wastrel to a responsible ruler because of the duty that was thrust upon him. I also saw the difficult choices that that raised and the pain suffered by his old drinking and wenching buddies. I discovered Hemingway, Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dostoyevsky. I was learning all the possibilities of what it means to be human. As my own personality was blossoming and I was confronting the complexities of adulthood, I was reading about those complexities and the enormous range of possible ways of dealing with them or not dealing with them — and the consequences of each. Literature taught me how to be human. It was an amazingly exhilarating time in my life and I look back on it with great fondness.
I now survey a life in which I made my living as an engineer. In engineering, my career went much further than it might have because of my ability to express myself clearly in words. I still believe that the most important engineering subject is English.
Although I made my living as an engineer, I did not live as an engineer. My inner life has been much, much richer than that. I’ve spent many years studying philosophy and theology and I’ve kept my passion for good theater, art, and literature. I attribute any ability I have to empathize with other people to my early formation in good literature and art. i find it difficult to fully express how literature and the arts has expanded my personal horizons and how they have enriched my emotional and intellectual life. I can promise that literature and the arts will blow your mind — and your heart — if you only plunge in with an earnest effort. The effort will get easier and you will be rewarded beyond measure.
By the way, I recently read a new translation of Beowulf and listened to a recording of the translator reading it aloud. It was thoroughly enjoyable.
Charles Bolthrunis works as a consultant for a chemical engineering firm. He has a background in philosophy and theology as well as engineering, and has influenced the current editor of this blog in more ways than she can describe. He can be reached for comment here.