David Bruce: Education Anecdotes


Naomi Yang of Damon and Naomi (with Damon Krukowski) fame learned to play bass basically on her own, after taking a few lessons from a teacher who knew his stuff but did not appreciate what he knew. The teacher gave her one lesson, and then he asked her to bring in some bass lines that she liked so he could teach her how to play them. She brought in the Joy Division song “Atmosphere,” on which Peter Hook played bass, and the teacher told her, “He’s playing a fifth, and then sliding up one octave.” This is a simple move, and the teacher made the mistake of saying, “What a genius, huh?” This horrified Ms. Yang, who says, “That teacher had just handed me a miracle! That was one of the most beautiful and elegant things I’d ever heard, and it was so simple. Peter Hook wasn’t doing something magical that I couldn’t do; he was doing something very simple that I learned in Bass Lesson Number Two.” But because the teacher did not appreciate the beautiful and elegant playing, she also thought, “I don’t need this teacher anymore!” Still, he had taught her something important: “You don’t have to be a virtuoso to play bass. You can play incredibly simple themes, but they can still be melodic and from the heart.”

Hunter S. Thompson worked very hard to become a writer. He wrote lots of stuff on his own, of course, but he also would type pages of material by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway simply to “feel the rhythm” of the way they wrote. This hard work paid off when he wrote his breakthrough book, Hell’s Angels, at age 29. The first part was more scholarly than the second, which was much more “gonzo” — the kind of writing associated with Mr. Thompson, who discovered that he had only four days to write the second part. He simply holed himself up in a room with what he considered the necessities of life — Dexedrine and Wild Turkey — and created the second half of the book. By the way, Mr. Thompson says that he was able to do this not because of the alcohol and the drugs, but because of the 15 years that he had spent learning to write.

Evolution-defender Richard Dawkins attended a wonderful school where his biology instructor was Ioan Thomas, who once asked the students, “What animal feeds on hydra?” He asked one student after another, and none knew the answer. Finally, the students asked him, “Sir, what animal does?” He replied, “’I don’t know. And I don’t think Mr. Coulson [another instructor] does either.” Mr. Dawkins remembers, “He burst into the next room, got Mr. Coulson and dragged him out by the arm, and he didn’t know either! It was a wonderful lesson! I never forgot it and neither did anyone else: it’s OK to not know the answer.”

Children’s author Jane Yolen began reading and writing at an early age — and kept right on going. In the first grade, she read overnight a book that the students were supposed to read for an entire semester, so the teacher moved her up to the second grade, where she wrote the words and music to the class play. The play featured vegetables, and in the big finale they came together and formed a salad. While attending Smith College, she wrote in verse a final exam essay about American intellectual history — and got an A! And on her 22nd birthday, she sold her first real book.

Quite a few graduate students, while brilliant in the laboratory, are not so brilliant when it comes to writing. When Dr. Mark H. Shapiro, aka the Irascible Professor, was working as a post-doctoral fellow at Caltech’s Kellogg Radiation Laboratory, he knew of someone who had made a block out of wood and had neatly inscribed it with the words “Writer’s Block.” Whenever a graduate student was approaching the time when he or she should begin writing his or her dissertation, a Writer’s Block would appear in the student’s laboratory mailbox.

M.E. Kerr, author of Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!, and her parents disagreed about where she should go to college. She wanted to go to the University of Missouri, and her parents wanted her to stay close to home and go to Syracuse University. As it turned out, her grades were so poor that neither school accepted her. She ended up attending Vermont Junior College, which was a good choice for her. She started the school newspaper, and she got good training for being an author by writing most of the newspaper’s articles.

Some people can’t see what is in front of them. A young dancer took a class with master choreographer George Balanchine, but she never listened to him. One day, she started to leave class in a great hurry at the end, and Mr. Balanchine asked her why she was in such a hurry to leave. The young dancer explained that she was going to take another class with a Balanchine expert. This shocked and amused Mr. Balanchine. He told the dancer, “Here I am. It’s me. I’m Balanchine. Why go anywhere else?”

Lynne Reid Banks, author of The Indian in the Cupboard, taught English for nine years in Israel. She once attended a reading conference where she spoke in front of a group of children who had plastic bags filled with reading materials. The children grew restless and started rustling the bags, and to get their attention, she kicked the bag out from underneath a boy. Another teacher wrote her an angry letter protesting her action, but the boy invited Ms. Banks to join his soccer team.

Ballerina Maria Tallchief once watched master choreographer George Balanchine teach a class to 40 girls, most of whom had no talent for dancing. She told him later, “George, isn’t it amazing that there’s only one girl who’s any good?” Mr. Balanchine’s opinion was different from Ms. Tallchief’s: “No, Maria. What’s amazing is that there is one girl who’s good.”

Comedian and TV game-show host Jan Murray always regretted not graduating from high school; therefore, when he was in his 40s, he finally earned his high-school diploma. Afterwards, he joked, “How old can I be? I just graduated from high school!”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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