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Mr. Nail

I’m fascinated by how we learn things. I recently read that there seems to be a strong correlation between the elimination of handwriting from the American school curriculum and the steep decline in academic test scores. I have also read that many children with learning disabilities have overcome their learning disabilities by developing  handwriting and memorization skills.

memorize: commit to memory, learn by heart

Mr. Nail was my English teacher for my senior year of high school. If I ever knew Mr. Nail’s first name, such knowledge is lost to the sound and the fury of the intervening fifty-four years. I want to call him Hank Nail, but that’s just a funny guess.

My sister Kathy was one of Mr. Nail’s star students a couple years before me, and she also starred in the Shakespeare plays Mr. Nail directed. However, Mr. Nail’s fondness for my sister did not extend to me. Why? I had a long-established habit (since First Grade) of occasionally making unsolicited comments during class, which comments often got laughs, and sometimes big laughs.

And though for the most part Mr. Nail tolerated my spur-of-the-moment comments, he clearly preferred being the one who got the laughs. Thus my friends and I were under the impression Mr. Nail didn’t like me. However, in retrospect I think there is a chance he secretly did like me, and he appreciated the lift in the collective spirit my occasional verbal intrusions imparted to our academic experience.

Also in retrospect, I think Mr. Nail was a very good teacher, though much of what he taught was lost on me as my mind was frequently elsewhere during those long hours of incarceration. He was little interested in right answers and very interested in the elegance and power of good writing, and he was always keen to discuss the deeper meanings of words and stories and plays.

Once a week (and we all wished he would do this every day) Mr. Nail would open his big dictionary at random and read an entire page out loud to us, a practice I found delightful and instructive and inspiring. I began reading the dictionary on my own, learned many fascinating words and factoids that way, and eventually purchased a fat two-volume version of the Oxford English Dictionary which makes for great random page reading.

When we undertook to study a play by Shakespeare, Mr. Nail’s specialty, he would spontaneously cast class members as the characters in whatever Shakespeare play we were reading and have us read a scene aloud. At scene’s end, to demystify the bewildering passages, he would pontificate on the historical or symbolical meanings of particular words and phrases. He thought Shakespeare was terrific and wanted us to think so, too.

My favorite thing Mr. Nail did was give us weekly updates on his hobby, which was entering contests sponsored by magazines and newspapers and manufacturers and food purveyors and towns and cities and churches and non-profit organizations. I don’t know if these kinds of contests are a big deal nowadays, but in 1967 there were so many such contests that Mr. Nail subscribed to a weekly newsletter to keep up with the thousands of contests happening year-round. And he entered dozens of these contests every week!

In his contest updates he would tell us how many contests he’d entered in the last week, which contests he was most optimistic about winning, and if he’d had any wins. Many of these contests merely required contestants to fill out entry forms and send them in. But some of these contests required little essays, and those were the contests Mr. Nail excelled at. He’d won many prizes over the years including a refrigerator, a washer and dryer, a bicycle, groceries, lawn mowers, gift certificates, and a considerable amount of cash.

The crowning glory of my time with Mr. Nail came shortly before the end of the school year when Mr. Nail told us he’d won an all-expenses-paid two-week trip for two to Europe. Through the fog of time, I seem to recall he won that trip by writing a five-hundred-word essay about unique uses for a small canister propane torch, but maybe not.

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