The metaphor for life suggested by the title above began as an actual childhood event. For so long I yearned to sew – just like my mother. I started with sewing cards and later made my first garment when Grandma Maurice helped me sew by hand a flannel nightgown for my doll.
By then, I was more than ready to join a 4-H sewing club. I stuffed my red felt pincushion and hemmed my tea towel with tiny hand stitches. The intended goal of my pink drawstring apron was learning to use the sewing machine. The apron’s hems, casing, and drawstring gave me ample practice, but all that straight stitching brought my mother to her Singer sewing machine for the purpose of direct supervision. For each long row of stitching, Mother stood behind me, instructing me to sew a little faster or much slower, pointing out wayward stitches and crooked sewing lines. She held high standards for herself and tried to instill the same in me. I spent plenty of time that summer with the stitch ripper in my hand.
Although she made me nervous enough to often veer from my sewing line, I improved my skills over the years, completing seven more 4-H garments and lots of other outfits all on my own. For years, however, Mother remained a phantom presence peering over my shoulder.
The space behind me was replaced with the space beside me when, as a teenager, I tried learning to drive. My first big lesson was keeping the car on my side of the road and out of the ditch. Mother’s commentary began in earnest and continued with instructions to go left or right or faster or slower. She meant well, but she drove me to distraction.
I did not take to driving easily. In fact, it took a village of Carol Skeen, Donzil Hall, and Dudley Lee to finish the job. I finally passed my driving test after school on my first day of teaching – when examiner John Chambers deemed my driving skills sufficient for licensure.
I ultimately realized I preferred to figure things out on my own, to correct my mistakes without anyone breathing down my neck. Of course, my chosen career necessitated the exact opposite: student teaching was all about displaying one’s skills for evaluation.
As a rookie teacher I continued to suffer from nervous nerves often bordering on paranoia in those first hectic classroom years. I am referring autobiographically to my own early observations carried out by the principal. Ron Pawlowski had been the head guy when I graduated in 1966 and was still there when I returned four years later. His gruff, larger-than-life persona had intimidated me as a senior; and as my supervising administrator, he scared the bejeebers out of me. Although he was not looking over my shoulder per se when he sat in judgment of me, I felt trepidation nonetheless as I watched him sitting in the back of the room scribbling comments on my evaluation sheet.
I felt no less intimidated by a distinguished colleague. Isabell Lash had been my junior English teacher extraordinaire, after whom I patterned much of my teaching. When I became a freshman English teacher in 1970, she was busy with sophomores. During that first year at GHS, I lived in abject terror that Isabell would eventually discover what a horrible teacher I really was. Nightmarish visions overwhelmed me in over-the-shoulder style: when my students became her students, I feared she would burst into my classroom to investigate the fraud I was perpetuating. I eventually calmed down, we became friends, and years later she sold me her house!
I have thankfully outgrown most of those unsettling feelings about other people’s judgments that haunted my younger years. A single comment, however, by my Advanced Composition professor at Otterbein will remain active as long as I write for readers.
Dr. James Bailey influenced my teaching more than I could ever have imagined during that final quarter just before I received my degree. He insisted we write in “white heat,” not waiting for complete sentences to fall from our pens. He advised against stopping the flow of ideas to correct spelling and grammar errors, technical matters that could be dealt with later. I thank him still for this liberating approach to writing on which I based the lessons I planned for my own students in two languages.
However, Dr. Bailey also commented that occasionally my writing sounded “glib.” During the fifty years since, that one criticism has remained right at my shoulder, causing the total rewrite of many a sentence. And there are other individuals whose judgments cause me concern: really good writers questioning my word choice and phrasing; strict grammarians raising their eyebrows at my punctuation and verb tenses; readers expecting to be entertained or informed or inspired.
I now understand that the over-the-shoulder experiences which initially inflicted such dread have morphed into expectations for myself to always do my very best, providing me with a personal measuring stick of sorts.
So now it is once again submission day, and I feel the crowd gathering behind me. They are all there: the writers with their potential criticisms, the grammar police, Dr. Bailey with his glib-o-meter, and my dear readers. They all peer, they remind, they judge, they hold me to the highest of standards – and that is just fine with me.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.