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Miss Higgins Remembered

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[Yearbook] George Clifford


By George (Cliff) Clifford… English class one fine morning in senior year. Not so fine a morning for me as I shall now explain.

I have no recollection at all as to what preceded or motivated Miss Higgins’ action. Regardless, all of a sudden she appeared in my face, bent over, holding me by the chin in a rather strong grip exclaiming to me and the entire, open-mouthed class:

“Look at you! You’re a wreck…!”

I have no doubt, whatsoever, that that is how I appeared to her in that moment back in the mid-Fifties. I was then (and still am) a night owl. Regardless of weekday, it has been my custom—probably since junior high—to read in bed into the wee hours. I’m talking three and four a.m. I was the antipathy, you might say, of an “up-and-at-’em” student in her English or any other morning class: groggy from lack of sleep and no doubt disheveled to boot.

[06880] Remembering V. Louise HigginsAs unconscious I may have been sitting in her classroom, I realized even back then that V. Louise Higgins had a passion for her subject. She was a professional, through and through. It was her chosen life’s calling: instruction in the world’s foremost language to teenagers whose interest in the subject could be characterized as questionable, at best. And on that day that very questionable interest on the part of one of those students must have tested those very high standards of hers to the point of grabbing my chin.

To this day I have never thought that what she did was inappropriate, excessive or mean-spirited. It was simply a reprimand swiftly delivered. I’m sure my demeanor began a 180 that very day…

Our English Language: Who Knew…?

Our English language, as languages go, is a wonder. The following factoids are gleaned from the foreword of Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary, unabridged second edition, copyright (c) 1975. Also online at wikipedia :

  • English A member of the “Indo-European” family of languages whose constituents are:
    • Indian
    • Iranian
    • Armenian
    • Albanian
    • Balto-Slavic
    • Germanic
    • Hellenic
    • Italic
    • Keltic

    What that means is that some very basic words like “mother”, “father”, etc., have common roots in Indian (sub-continent) and European languages, but not so much in languages from African, Oriental and Pacific Island regions. Consider the word for a male sibling: English brother; Dutch broeder. German bruder; Old Saxon brothar (from West German via Low German parents); Lithuanian broter; Greek phrater; Latin frater; Irish brathair; Sanskrit bhratar (from Indian parent).

  • Olde English As best scholars can determine, English consisted of a set of West German dialects in first common use some 1500 years ago roughly in the region known as Alsace-Lorraine that separates France from Germany. It was brought to the British Isles by Anglo-Saxon tribes around the fifth century. Here are the opening lines to the epic poem, Beowulf, in Olde English. Now, who can read these first 20 lines…!? Who would even suspect that this was an earlier form of English…!?

    [wikipedia.com] Olde English Opening Lines to Beowulf

  • Translation
    Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon·hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon. Oft Scyld Scéfing sceaþena þréatum monegum maégþum meodosetla oftéah·egsode Eorle syððan aérest wearð féasceaft funden hé þæs frófre gebád·wéox under wolcnum·weorðmyndum þáh oð þæt him aéghwylc þára ymbsittendra ofer hronráde hýran scolde, gomban gyldan·þæt wæs gód cyning. Ðaém eafera wæs æfter cenned geong in geardum þone god sende folce tó frófre·fyrenðearfe ongeat·þæt híe aér drugon aldorléase lange hwíle·him þæs líffréä wuldres wealdend woroldáre forgeaf: Béowulf wæs bréme—blaéd wíde sprang—Scyldes eafera Scedelandum in. Listen! We—of the Spear-Danes in the days of yore, of those clan-kings— heard of their glory. How those nobles performed courageous deeds. Often Scyld, Scef’s son, from enemy hosts from many peoples seized mead-benches; and terrorised the fearsome Heruli after first he was found helpless and destitute, he then knew recompense for that:-he waxed under the clouds, throve in honours, until to him each of the bordering tribes beyond the whale-road had to submit, and yield tribute:-that was a good king! To him a heir was born then young in the yards, God sent him to comfort the people; He had seen the dire distress that they suffered before, leader-less a long while; them for that the Life-Lord, Ruler of Glory, granted honour on earth: Beowulf (Beaw) was famed— his renown spread wide—Scyld’s heir, in Northern lands.

    A couple of observations about this Olde English:

    • More efficient (fewer words) than modern English. (Fewer politicians…?)
    • The language made use of punctuation although I am unclear about some of it. For example what does the construction “:-” mean?
    • Olde English was not picky about trailing prepositions (see ending phrase)… :-)
    • The word, “God”, has not been altered by natural English language evolution in 1,500 years.
    • Apparently Beowulf had more to worry about than the dragon monster, “Grendel”; he had to deal with land-dwelling whales, as well, as they seem to have had their own private road system…
    • It is a certainty, in my mind, that Lewis Caroll’s Jabberwocky poem was inspired by Beowulf :

    Twas bryllyg, and the slythy toves
    Did gyre and gymble in the wabe:
    All mimsy were the borogoves;
    And the mome raths outgrabe.

    —Lewis Caroll

    (Which I understood perfectly until I began reading Beowulf …)

  • Middle English Acquired this designation beginning in the 11th century following the Norman invasion of England. Neither of these earlier versions of the language is intelligible to us in the modern world. Hard to grasp the evolution from old to modern—at least the written form…
  • Modern English Dates from the 15th century with the arrival of the printing press in London.

I grew up thinking English was spoken simply in the “English-speaking world”: here in the U.S. and Canada, British Isles and Territories, Australia and New Zealand. What’s that, a dozen…? Wrong, wrong, wrong. English, today, is the official language of 67 countries! “You could look it up!” It is the official language of the United Nations and the European Union.

One measure of the richness of the language is the sheer volume of its word content. A knowledgeable guess is about a quarter million. And I’m thinking that that number is huge by comparison to other languages.

Pondering the matter, the question becomes: How on earth did it become so widespread? So dominant? I’m just speculating here but the following factors are surely in play:

  • Great Britain is completely surrounded by water. A huge island, as it were. Consequently, in order to sustain itself as a nation state(s), it had to develop a sophisticated seagoing trading capability. To protect these trade routes a capable navy was required. An ocean-going navy needs ports of call and thus permanent, English-speaking port facilities to handle the trade. All of this development had the effect of spreading English to the Four Corners of the known world.
  • For some reason English “borrows” easily from other languages, boosting not only its volume but its color and flavor, as well. Consider what we hear in daily conversation from French: c’est la vie, deja vu, voila, au contraire, mon frere… Or Spanish: Quesadillas, gringo, YankquiGoHome… You might say that English “listens” better than other languages. Again, my own speculation here.
  • (Also, I often wonder about the impact the Beatles may have had on the global spread of English…?)

Senior English Class

May have been titled “English III-2” in senior year. There were three components of the course as I recall:

  • Grammar A random jumble comes to mind: compound sentences, restrictive clauses (use commas only with non-restrictive clauses), subjunctive mood, past participles and gerunds (the latter not varmints resembling chipmunks). What fun to a 17-year-old suffering from terminal raging hormones…
  • Literature The only author I can remember having to study at any length was Shakespeare. And the only writing I can recall studying was Beowulf—an Old English poem of unknown authorship (see above references). Tragically I cannot recall a single thing from this classic. Not even if it was about a wolf…
  • Composition We also had instruction in writing. Book reports. White papers. I don’t recall if the class required writing fiction or poetry. On second thought, it must have since Inklings was full of surprisingly mature, polished short stories and poems. We learned the intricacies of proper report structure. I can recall only two such works of my own: 1) a report on smoking (cigarettes, cigars, etc., no doubt concerned, as a smoker, how long I had to live…); and 2) a book report on Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I recall these, I think, because they represented rare effort on my part.

"Smoking" by George Clifford

In search of the past—thinking I had saved one or both oeuvres—I went into the attic to dig through boxes of memorabilia. And voila! There was the first draft of my report on smoking at the bottom of a box of scribblings! (I used to write essays on deep philosophical subjects. Then I met Ronnie who gently helped me transition out of rehab back to the real world…) I had written a paper entitled Smoking probably in senior year. Smoking and its effects on health.

Miss Higgins’ handwritten critique appears all over the cover and throughout this 15-page effort. Her own handwriting…! If you click on the image, above, you may just be able to make out some of her comments. But, if you can’t make any out, here’s one that exemplifies her sharp but typically right-on-the-money (in my case) comments:

“George, you are capable of good work—and I hope that you do good work consistently. In your case, it’s mostly a matter of doing work on time.”

Imagine having to read (and comprehend if possible) these papers for each class…! Critiquing each down to the level of grammar and spelling! Let’s see: there were 160 students in our class. Round it off to 150. Two classes (semesters) per year. Three grades: sophomore, junior, senior. Let’s say two papers per semester. My math says 1,800 per year. How long did she teach: 30 years? How does one summon the mental discipline and fortitude to take on 50,000-plus high school papers like this…!? And likely more than that as classes grew larger over the years…?

Miss Higgins: Farewell. You Done [sic] a Swell Job…

[06880danwoog.com] Miss Higgins, 1969 Yearbook

Looking back, Miss Higgins (never “Ms. Higgins” to us), you taught us well. You did honor to your craft. Under your tutelage our skill with the language improved, as did our respect for it. You devoted your life, as it were, to us young skulls full of mush [objective case, here, with the “us”—not the nominative “we”].

Farewell, Miss Higgins. You did a quite memorable job. It is unlikely that a single one of the thousands who sat in your classrooms will ever forget you…

—George (Cliff) Clifford
Class of 1955
Hendersonville, NC
May 16, 2016

P.S. In hindsight, thank you for reprimanding me back in the Fifties in front of the whole class. No doubt did some good…

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