Dress for success

To the Editor:

Reading the news article of Aug. 5 about Lyndon Institute adopting a dress code, and the rationale for it by Headmaster Rick Hilton and others, with which I agree, I recall a piece I wrote for the Memoir Writing group at the Good Living Center in St. Johnsbury a couple of years ago.

Margaret MacFarquhar was the best teacher I ever had. She was unique. Notice I didn't say "very unique" -- Mrs. MacFarquhar was my high school English teacher and taught us proper use of words. Unique was one of a kind, it could have no limiting or additional words.

Looking back at my educational experiences, K-12, college and graduate school, I have had a number of fine, even superior, teachers, but I am convinced none more beneficial for me than Mrs. MacFarquhar. As we get older and look back our perceptions and personal evaluations of people often change; it is called historical perspective. For Mrs. MacFarquhar, however, I had that respect even while attending her classes.

Born in Scotland in 1889, she was close to 60 years of age when I had her in 1948-1949 at Thomas Jefferson High School, Elizabeth, N.J., the public school for boys covering grades 10 through 12. I have learned that she died in 1973 at the age of 84.

"Mrs. Mac" was firm, a believer in discipline in order to instill self-discipline in her students, a skilled communicator and a person who loved both the English language (spoken with a Scottish accent) and the authors and literature it produced. She was also practical in advice she gave, and demanding in requiring performance from her students to the extent of their individual abilities to perform. She did not expect us to do what we individually were not capable of doing, but required us to do what she understood we were capable of doing. In other words she judged my work in part by comparing it with what she believed I should be doing, rather than grading it or comparing it to a paper presented by another student. At first this seemed unfair. After all, if my paper was better than Peter's, why shouldn't I get a better grade than Peter? But if Peter's was his best effort and mine was not my best, it was possible that I would receive a lesser mark. When I finally realized this I also recognized that this took a great deal more work on her part than the teachers who simply gave true or false or multiple choice exams and then scaled them so that everyone would pass.

Mrs. Mac loved all kinds of literature and often read to us from Wordsworth, Hawthorne, Keats, Shelly, the Brownings, Shakespeare and the Bible, but the best times were when she would read passages from Robert Burns. I amazed my mother one Christmas when I asked for book of poems by Robert Burns. She gave it to me and I still have it, a fine edition with plaid cloth cover. Somehow, however, reading it myself does not have the same ring as when she gave it her best Scottish read.

And yes, she did occasionally read passages from the Bible, as literature. Incidentally 15 years later when the Supreme Court "banned" Bible reading in school it proscribed such readings when done as religious exercises but did not prohibit using the Bible as literature. I recall her saying that no one can properly understand Moby Dick without some basic understanding of the Bible, and that that principle applied to much of English literature.

There were also certain rules in her class. Each of us had to wear a necktie while in her class. If we came without one she had some in the drawer that we could borrow for the class time. The ties in her collection, however, were not ones that any of us would want to be seen wearing so we seldom came without our own. We also were required to stand up when reading a passage or our own paper, or on occasions when answering a question or addressing the class or Mrs. Mac. One of her explanations was that she was a symbol of authority and we should get used to good manners because in the business world we would be expected to act properly.

Mrs. Mac would talk occasionally about her early life in Scotland and her times at the University of Edinburgh. When they took examinations they wore formal gowns; the same kind you see at graduation ceremonies. She found that it gave her a sense of doing something very important, more so than simply getting dressed in everyday clothes. Mrs. Mac said that in college "today" many students study all night for a "final," take the last cup of coffee, and go the exam in the same clothes as they had on the night before. Her recommendations: get a good night's sleep; get up early, shave, shower, and put on your "Sunday best." She was recommending what today we would call "psyching yourself up."

The first time I did this at Muskingum College, New Concord, Ohio, I stood out in the crowd in the exam room. But I was ready, refreshed, and indeed felt like what I was doing was serious rather than going for a casual walk. It worked for me, so I continued the practice. At first only a few of my classmates followed in the next series of exams. In law school, however, what I did was more contagious. In each course we had only one exam at the end of the semester and upon that exam the entire course grade depended. I was the only one "dressed up" for the first exam, apparently the only one who had shaved and showered, and likely the only one who had slept the night before. When the results were posted I had "hit it big." At the very next exam several of my classmates were well shaven, though, I suspect, not well rested. Even so, my friend's clean white dress shirt showed no signs of spilled coffee as did the wrinkled T-shirt he had worn at the prior exam.

In 2004 I had occasion to travel to Durham, in the northeast part of England; dare I call it the real northeast kingdom? It would be a much shorter train ride from Edinburgh than from London, so I arranged my flight from Boston to Edinburgh and stayed overnight on the campus of the University. It was hard to sense the atmosphere Mrs. Mac must have felt when a student there, as I was in a new dormitory with other travelers from all over the world -- seemingly mostly Asian. However there were some old buildings, and as I walked the streets of an old section of the city I also reminisced about putting on my tie before entering English 12 at Thomas Jefferson High School, Elizabeth, N.J.

Harman Clark

Sheffield, Vt.


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