He insisted that writers are made - not born

[Editor's note: The original version misspelled the writer's name.]

In the 1950s, when Ed Krzenski began teaching English, many of his contemporaries had already abandoned the Sisyphean struggle to equip their pupils with writing skills. The notion that writers are born - not made - was gaining credence in faculty lounges across the United States. In place of learning how to write, some teachers were asking students to respond orally to stories, essays, or poems - rather than having students analyze the literature in writing, let alone fashion their own poetry or prose.

This didn't sit well with Ed, who believed that writing could be taught, and that nearly anyone could be trained to write passably. He was the finest writing teacher I have known, and if his name is unfamiliar to you, it's because he labored in obscurity at Cloquet High School in Minnesota teaching 11th-grade English. I don't think he ever published anything, and he never aspired to. But all of Ed's students learned to write or they didn't pass his class.

He used to say it was a shame that so many English teachers and professors believed that writing was an innate skill that could not be taught. It was a shame, because Ed could teach it, and teach it well. He certainly did during the spring quarter of 1962 when I practiced teaching under his tutelage.

During those several months, I watched a man dedicate himself to teaching writing to teens whose interests were anywhere but in the schoolroom, where they were required to parse sentences. Ed was the only high school teacher I'm aware of whose students wore out books of grammar.

His raison d'être was ensuring that every high school junior enrolled in his class would leave understanding what constituted a sentence, a paragraph, an essay, and knowing how to execute them.

"I stress writing," he informed me the day I arrived in Cloquet. His comment was pointed; my background was literature, and I expected to emphasize that during my apprenticeship. "The trend these days is away from writing and grammatical rules, but I'm from the old school."

Except he wasn't that old - late 30s perhaps - of medium height and build, with dark horn-rimmed glasses with lenses that magnified his eyes.

"Kids can learn how to write," he said, "and the ones in my classes will learn."

Ed insisted that every pupil could write solid exposition - essays and criticism - through proper instruction. His directions demanded that students pore over grammar workbooks, complete the exercises, and pay scrupulous attention to numerous discussions about developing and supporting a thesis.

His students wrote a 500-word theme each week, which meant Ed was reading about 100 papers per week - a total of more than 50,000 words. He demanded quality submissions, complete with proper usage, grammatical perfection, and correct spelling. Students were required to demonstrate comprehension of each week's 10 vocabulary words by using them in their essays.

Ed meticulously examined each paper, but would not record a grade until it was error-free - an often maddening process for the students. At the top of a returned theme, Ed noted the types of errors in the paper, such as spelling, awkward construction, or grammar. But the notes would never disclose where the problems were located on the page. The student had to figure that out for him or herself.

A day or two later Ed might receive the "corrected" paper, sometimes to discover the student had misspelled a second word, while missing the original. Now Ed's notation indicated two words were spelled incorrectly. This exchange might go on for days, even weeks, with the paper dishrag-limp from erasures. Now the theme would have to be redone before Ed would issue a grade.

His approach to discipline also involved writing and words. Instead of detention for fractious or recalcitrant students, Ed insisted they copy, verbatim, everything on an assigned page from a Merriam-Webster dictionary, incorporating the diacritical marks. During the time I spent observing and teaching his classes, I learned that even the students he labeled as average possessed working vocabularies far exceeding those of most of my college peers.

By the end of Ed's second-hour class each day, perspiration glistened behind his glasses, and his shirt was damp - the result of his ceaseless efforts to instill a belief among his students that using words and writing well has utilitarian value far beyond the classroom.

In the 40 years since I left Cloquet High School, I have published seven books and a batch of stories and essays in respectable journals and newspapers. Yet I am certain nothing I've written has carried the power and influence of Ed Krzenski's teaching.

His students learned how a stronger command of the English language could better prepare them for tackling complex issues - a skill that demands clarity of thought and expression. There can be little doubt that when acuity of language is diminished, we are more easily flummoxed by politicians, advertisers, and talk-radio hosts. Our own thoughts are reduced to nods, shrugs, and an irritating plethora of "you know."

"Most people don't realize that writing well teaches you to think clearly," Ed told me one warm afternoon as that long ago spring term wound down. "The world may not need more authors, but sadly, there will always be a shortage of clear thinkers."

So whenever the idea that writing can't be taught surfaces at writers' workshops and conferences where I am a participant, I always hearken to Ed Krzenski's comment about those who teach writing but believe it can't be taught: "If someone really believes that, he should have the integrity to not cash his paycheck."

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