A genuine VFOGI is forever

ONE of the best teachers I ever had was a rumpled, kindly bear of a man who spent an hour every day during my senior year in high school prodding me and my friends through a course in politics, international relations, and current events which he called World Problems. Naturally this got shortened to W. P., pronounced ``Woopie.'' Under many another teacher the class might have been a dull grind; it had earned this happy nickname at my school, thanks to the wonderful style of our teacher, Hugh Semple. With humor, gruffness, patience, and wisdom, he helped us believe we were ready for adulthood. In those relatively untroubled days of 1961, we could not foresee how soon the country would be contending with missile crises, assassinations, race riots, and Vietnam, but we knew that citizenship was going to be a heavy trip one way or another. Mr. Semple helped us feel ready to shoulder the burden, laughing all the way.

His chief textbooks were Time magazine and the front page of this morning's paper. Breaking news developments and the hidden causes beneath them, previously the province of our frowning parents, now became topics within our own competency. Who, what, where, when, why, and how -- the reporter's checklist of essential facts -- grew to be ours as well.

``Extra credit!'' he would bark, interrupting himself in the middle of some train of argument to ask a question that would be an odd shirttail cousin to the topic at hand. Whoever could answer the question got a few bonus points in Semple's grade book. A quarter of a century later, school friends whom I haven't seen in years will suddenly roll their eyes skyward and stammer out ``Extra credit.'' Now, as then, the mimicry is done with affection. Remembering the old bear, who passed on a few years back, always makes us feel warm. He had such a large hand in our rites of passage as young Americans.

I can still see him leaning back perilously far in the swivel chair by the blackboard, placing one foot or both up on his desk, as he lectured and directed class discussions. Inevitably, there was at least one famous time when he tipped all the way over backward. But did the lecture on Hammarskjold or Adenauer miss even a single beat as Semple, momentarily invisible, dusted himself off, righted the chair, and, blushing, resumed his position? Legend holds it that it did not.

He was a deadly shot with a piece of chalk, sometimes even an eraser, if he spotted you dozing or daydreaming in the back row. The class met in the early afternoon, drowsy time if you had had too much lunch, and the many spring days when almost everyone's attention would flicker despite all efforts to stay tuned in. But those efforts were always well repaid.

It was Hugh Semple, for example, from whom I first heard of Adam Smith's monumental book on economic liberty, ``An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,'' and who set me musing on its profoundly significant year of publication: 1776.

You remembered such things not so much from being drilled, as simply because he dared you to. He was forever challenging and pushing us to build what he called our VFOGI, a ``vast fund of general information'' stocked with useful tidbits ready to apply in any conceivable situation. Names and dates, statistics and rules of thumb, apt quotations, historic firsts, oddities worthy of Ripley, implausible spellings, mysteries of science, geographic stunners -- a really vast VFOGI would have a peg, a pigeonhole, or a parking place for all of these categories and more, not to mention a wildly cluttered memory-attic piled with marvelous miscellany defying any category at all.

``Trivial Pursuit?'' Hugh Semple had his W. P. classes playing it before many of today's T. P. addicts were even born. But the game as our tweedy mentor taught it was anything but trivial. The aim was not to march up pastel squares toward the center of a board, but to fan out toward all the horizons of life -- living knowledgeably, with skill, with flair, but never in boastful self-satisfaction just because you happened to know the answer to that question on the card.

The stuff of our VFOGI was not bits of trivia, mental dust-bunnies, but useful artifacts all -- giving off a kind of sturdy dignity, even an occasional gleam of wonder, because every fact stood ready to contribute toward real achievements in the real world by real people -- us, slouching in the back corner of Mr. Semple's classroom, alert to dodge his chalk if need be.

In a clever way, the fun of VFOGI-building turned us on to the satisfaction of endless, omnivorous self-education -- what is now fashionably called ``lifelong learning'' -- with our hardly knowing it. For I have discovered that a well-launched VFOGI continues to grow and diversify with an energy of its own, as irrepressibly as one of Al Capp's schmoos. Like a Yukon prospector's store of sourdough, it multiplies all by itself, lowly but yeasty, so that there's always something nourishing in the mental cupboard even if the hunt for nuggets of more glamorous knowledge fails to pan out.

Some of the ``general information'' with which Mr. Semple funded me has long since gone, but the best endures. We left World Problems, many of us, more reliably informed that we could believe in ourselves, that this modern world is a place rich with opportunity as well as threaded with danger, that this America is nothing short of a political, economic, and social miracle, wherein stellar roles as citizens and leaders wait for each of us to play, if we are willing.

All this from one high school class: Here is a vast fund indeed. Extra credit to you, Hugh Semple, for you taught us so much more than simply how to psych out those tricky multiple-choice tests with which Time used to promote itself in the school market once a quarter. For every Mr. Chips a last bell must ring, and current events lose currency overnight -- but a genuine VFOGI is forever.

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