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A teacher’s greatest lesson: Never leave anything unsaid

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I think of him often every graduation season. An immense man to my 17-year-old eyes with a deep voice, long arms and hair that would cascade over his forehead like an excited Russian pianist.

My prep school English teacher Arthur G. Hughes (AGH in his written comments). I had qualified for his honors class by three years of reading American novels and a devotion to writing, albeit clumsy.

Mr. Hughes saw in me things I was unaware of, but he would help me discover. One time, I scored 680 out of 800 on a standardized writing test. Fearfully, I asked if such a disappointing outcome would disqualify me from his class.

“Mr. Malcolm,” he said, “I wouldn’t let you leave this class if you scored 200. Now, go write something.” I did.

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Another time I showed up at his house with some over-written descriptive prose.

“Come in,” he said, donning his eyeglasses. “Do you want a Coke?” He was watching football on television. An English teacher who liked Coca-Cola and football too? Who knew such a thing was possible?

Then, there was that unforgettable day in class. Mr. Hughes had one of us read a page from a novel. It concerned two lovers riding a sled down a very steep hill.

“What do you see there?” he asked.

“Two crazy people,” a classmate offered to laughter.

“Yes,” said Mr. Hughes, because no personal interpretation of literature could ever be wrong. “But I’m looking for something else.”

We fumbled with the possibilities, none of which were wrong. But he was still searching.

Finally, someone said, “It seemed to go fast.”

“Yes!” Mr. Hughes shouted, snapping his fingers and pointing so energetically the hair fell across his forehead.

We were getting excited too now. We had the scent. “But how do you know the sled was going fast?” he asked. “Was the word ‘fast’ on that page?”

No. It wasn’t there. Hmm. The mystery was mounting. “It just read faster,” I offered.

“Faster when?” he nodded.

“As the sled was going down the hill.”

“But how do you know that?”

A classmate in the back had the answer. “At the top of the hill the sentences are long. But as the sled goes faster, the sentences grow shorter. So you read faster too.”

“Yes! Yes!” said Mr. Hughes, whirling to the blackboard to reveal the magic formula. He pressed so hard the chalk broke.

“Gentlemen, you’ve just discovered form equals content. In writing. Art. Music. Dancing. You don’t need to say it to say it.”

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Ten years later as a professional, I tried that same technique when writing a newspaper feature. “You don’t need to say it,” I kept telling myself, “to say it.”

Miraculously, the novelistic technique survived the formulaic newspaper editing of those days. I thought about mailing the clipping to Mr. Hughes, but decided against it.

Days later, I reconsidered and added a note: “FORM = CONTENT.”

I received an immediate handwritten reply:

“To think that a student would remember a specific lesson years later is rewarding,” he wrote. “To think that he would use it in his work is gratifying. But to realize that he would then think to tell me about it touched my heart.”

Two weeks later Mr. Hughes died.

But even in passing, he taught me another lesson about never leaving anything unsaid with the people you love. Sometimes you do need to say it to say it.

I applied that lesson to my parents over ensuing years, never leaving my love and appreciation unsaid in case someday they passed away before I could tell them. Which they did.

More than a half-century later, I think of that class and Mr. Hughes often at this time of year, and many others, to be truthful. There, I just said it – again.

Elsie Barnes taught music in Harrison County schools and private music lessons for more than three decades. She has shared her love of music with countless children over the years.

Andrew Malcolm is a veteran national and foreign correspondent and author of 10 nonfiction books. Follow him @AHMalcolm
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