Monday, August 15, 2016

Three-three-threeing my way to the impossible dream

Between 1962 and 1966 I attended Highland Park High School in Highland Park, IL. I was a math-minded person and even though it was the only language spoken at home, I was definitely challenged when it came to English class.

In those days HPHS (and the workshop) taught a structured writing method called 3-3-3. Essentially it required that each essay have three main topics, that each main topic be supported by three paragraphs, and each paragraph consist of three sentences/thoughts. We hated it (or at least I did.)

Part of the problem was that I had poor study habits, an issue that my parents helped me correct by hiring a teacher, Vernon Hein, to get me on track. The summer after the Freshman year, they also made me take a workshop run by Mr. Hein and Mr. William Guthrie--perhaps the most feared English teacher in the school. In that course we had to learn 20 vocabulary words (including "heinous" -- Mr. Hein was asking for trouble with that one), and also write a short essay every day. I became "expert" at 3-3-3.

Vernon Hein and William Guthrie
Fast forward to my Freshman year at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. I noticed that every Sunday, while others were struggling to get their English homework done, I had most of the day free because I was finished. I didn't think anything of this until near the end of the year.

My English Composition class was on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and was taught by David Demerest, one of the top professors in the department (I later learned). One Tuesday he gave us an assignment to read Don Quixote and to write a essay about how the book illustrated any of several supplied subjects. The book is over 1,000 pages which ordinarily would not be a problem because I love reading. However, this particular week I had an interview in Chicago for a summer job at the Kitchen's of Sara Lee as a computer programmer (I got the job.)

I flew to Chicago after class on Thursday in first class on United Airlines ($14.70 each way using youth fare) for my interview the next day and then back to Pittsburgh on Sunday. In spite of my best intentions (really) I only managed to read about 100 pages by Monday morning. Although I never used them, I figured Cliff Notes would save me. I spent a few hours checking local bookstores for them and none had Don Quixote. I was royally screwed. Or was I?

David Demerast
On Monday night I started quickly scanning the book to locate three sections that I might use to support one of the supplied topics. After not too long I found them and read only those sections in any detail. I wrote three paragraphs of three sentences about each.

Although I felt guilty about not having read the book, I turned it in and hoped for the best. On Thursday morning Dr. Demarest returned the essay to me marked with an A!

Years later, when I returned to the now named Carnegie Mellon University as a researcher I would occasionally see Dave Demarast on campus. One day I told him this story and we had a good laugh about it. To this day I blame the English department at HPHS and 3-3-3 for any success I've had in writing.

[I realized over the weekend that I still have not read Don Quixote...something I intend to remedy soon.]