In the fall of 1950, when I began to teach freshman writing to college students, I borrowed the device of a distinguished writing teacher whom I'll call Dr. Syntax, his actual name having disappeared from my memory. But I still remember clearly his humdinger pedagogical regimen: "The Daily Theme Eye."
Every weekday morning by 8 o'clock sharp, each student had to drop into the professor's campus mailbox a one-page essay on something of interest he or she had noticed the day before. One page only. Every day. On time! At 8:01 the box was locked, and anyone who missed the deadline, however good his essay might have been, got an "F" in the grade book for that day.
A professor who undertook, these days, to cultivate in his students such an optic as "The Daily Theme Eye" might end up with a low score on student evaluations; The routine is far too severe and directive today, when democracy and political correctness have taken much of the zip out of the monarchical stance of 1950s pedagogy. But I still can't imagine a more useful device to train fledgling writers. From it, they could (and did) develop three valuable qualities: alertness, conciseness, and punctuality.
Earlier this year, I renewed acquaintance with two students from almost 50 years back. I was attending a homecoming gathering at the college where, in the '50s, I had applied my version of the regimen of "The Daily Theme Eye." These two students had been favorites of mine, and I remember them as having chafed good-naturedly, more at the early deadline than at the rigor of writing something of interest daily in "fit words though few." One had become a distinguished clergyman, the other a successful journalist.
We hadn't opened the conversation 30 seconds when both nailed me with "The Daily Theme Eye."
"Remember?" they chorused.
Fifty years ago. Ach! Well, all right....
But both took pleasure in declaring that over the years they had often recalled the "Theme Eye" writing requirement, perhaps, as we all know, because distance lends enchantment to the view. Nevertheless, both agreed that in the pulpit or in a newspaper column, it's essential to be interesting, concise, and, in different ways, on time. About 20 minutes is all you get, in sermon or newsprint, before the audience drifts off.
I would never have guessed, years ago, that I was contributing to the future professional success of gentleman of the first and fourth estates. But that's the nature of teaching: You may never know what you have wrought pedagogically.
Years ago, the English essayist Charles Lamb remarked that one of the nicest pleasures was to have done a good deed in quiet and have it found out by chance. That's nice. I think I understand.