Since I've taken up the challenge of presenting a show called The Essay Question, a few folks have been bold enough to ask me when I started writing essays. The answer is simple enough: like almost every other baby boomer, I began writing essays in school under duress. But I guess I had an advantage because shortly after I was required to write essays I began reading them: Oh, not my own or my friends' efforts, but essays by Emerson, Montaigne, Francis Bacon, William Hazlitt and E.B. White.
By the time I was in fourth grade, Mrs.... I've forgotten her name! It was a long name that began with a Mac, Mac something. It was hard for us then too, so most of the kids, the boys anyway, called her Mrs. Mac. She was young and pretty with chestnut hair cut short. Anyway, she liked to assign a short essay once a week. When you came in the classroom on Friday morning straight off the bus, the topic of the essay to be handed in Monday morning was written on the blackboard. I always asked Freddy Koenig what it was and he'd tell me. Most of the other guys in the class accepted the fact that I was kind of klutzy, although on the ball field they were none too kind about it. I didn't know then that I was terribly near sighted and so stumbled along in blissful ignorance. But that was about to change.
Now lest you think it is a tremendous disadvantage at 9 years old to be blind as a bat, think again. It made me become a precocious reader, something of a phenomenon really. By the third grade I had blasted through The Boy's King Arthur and when I was 10 the whole of The Once and Future King. Nobody could touch me. I had an amazing vocabulary that I couldn't spell to save my life. But I was undaunted. Spelling always seemed to trip me up. Still does.
Well, one Friday morning when Freddy read me the topic I was surprised. It seemed a bit personal, but Mrs. Mac knew what she was about. The topic Freddy read to me was "Why I Like Jim". There was only one Jim in the class... Jim Urquhart. I only remember anymore the first two sentences of that essay. Whenever Jim sees me he smiles. That always makes me feel good.
When I got the essay back from Mrs. Mac, I immediately looked for the usual A- (minus for the spelling) and found this instead: F/A+. Below for the first time Mrs. Mac had written a paragraph of her own in red. While it was clever to change the topic, she wrote, she had assigned "Why I Like Gym" NOT "Why I Like Jim." But she said the writing was so clear and the sentiments so sincere I should change the title to the classic On Friendship and then my (and here she used a magic new word) essay would be close to perfect.
Once at home in front of the huge book shelves that surrounded the window in the den, I saw the word printed in gold against the deep, deep green spine of a book, Essays. When I opened the book, in it there was an essay called Friendship. I flipped to page 222. The first sentence of the essay went, "We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken."
“The Essay Question with Stratton Rawson” airs Saturday nights at 8 p.m., Sunday nights at 7 p.m. Starting September 14 on Classical 94.5 WNED!