In response to the article titled “Why Johnny Can’t Write” (That Was Then, Oct. 4), I offer this story from the mid-’60s.
Back then the grading system was 1 (high) to 7 (low). The undergraduate student body consisted of a lot of preppies and highly accomplished kids from high-impact public schools. The professors, knowing that all the kids were smart, having a lot of other things to do like publishing, and not having time to deal with any controversy, were pretty easy. Junior-paper advisers, for example, rather than create a fuss, would give all their advisees a 2 on their first junior papers. No issues, no interruption in their own authorship.
With one exception.
English professor Maurice Kelley, a cantankerous white-haired old coot and a huge fan of and expert in Thomas Carlyle and his expository style and elegance, would have none of that. He went naked to the attack and gave 3s and 4s to his advisees on their first JPs. “What the ... ” went the uproar. “I was valedictorian of my class at Scarsdale.” Kelley’s response: “Your heads are full of mush, and you can’t write worth a damn. At least cogently. That’s the truth, but if you want learn how to write, I’m willing to teach you.” A generous offer from a busy man? Well, all his advisees fled his dominion for more benign shelter.
Having received a 3-something on my first JP, I went to Kelley and said I’d like to give it a try. True to his word, he taught me how to properly structure a sentence, then how paragraphs could flow like nectar. Critically important, Kelley taught, was how and where to place the proper emphasis. And he was a stickler for proper diction. “There is a better word for the idea you are trying to connote. Find it.” A paperback thesaurus was an inexpensive commodity in those days. I still have mine, though the pages are yellowed and crumbling. I still house it in my holster, rather than an iPhone. Professor Kelley taught me how to write and, importantly, how to communicate. His lessons have been a formative factor in my life, and I will love that old bastard for it till my dying day.
I recently had occasion to attend a presentation by the Foundation Academies, a charter school for the inner-city kids in Trenton. One of the presenters was an enthusiastic young guy who teaches writing to these challenged kids. His words resonated with Maurice Kelley’s lessons. So do not be surprised if one day you see a Trenton kid leave his Newton High School competition and others in the dust.
I write books now. And, by the way, I got a 1 on my senior thesis. Thank you, Professor Maurice Kelley.
Photo: Sept. 9, 1951 Princeton Alumni Weekly