Becoming a Writer

by Mace Foehl '85

Mace and one of her students
Mace Foehl '85 with one of her math students

It was springtime, a couple years ago, when I told a story in one of my classes at Northfield Mount Hermon. I had never told this particular story before, perhaps because it showed some of my weaknesses and revealed a little more vulnerability than I had been comfortable with until now, more than 30 years into teaching. There were mostly seniors in the class, and I felt particularly close to them, and they were close to each other as well. The crisp air of that spring had the intense heat from the sun, and the end of the school year was in sight. These students were ready for college and excited, but I also sensed their anxiety and sadness about leaving NMH and their inevitable separation from good friends.

Here’s the story I shared with them: When I arrived at Williams College for my first year, I was juggling a totally new environment, freshman orientation and field hockey practice at the same time. I was overwhelmed with everything, and classes hadn’t even started yet. I thought everyone was so much smarter than I was. They all seemed to know what they were going to major in and even details like which medical school or law school they were going to go to. I’d be with these genius first years in my dorm and then off to field hockey practice to try to prove that I was capable of playing with these skilled athletes. I had never before been on a team where everyone was really good. I started to question why they had let me in. Was it just my hand-eye coordination? Or my grandfather, Williams class of 1932? I was losing confidence at a rapid pace. And about four days in, I got a letter from the college in my SU box. It said because my verbal score on the SAT was 250 points lower than my math score I couldn’t take freshman English. I needed to test into the class. My SAT scores were coming back to haunt me. Way back then, I told my students, we only took them once. As I read the rest of the letter, I felt the tears coming, but the next day I managed to get to the building and the room I needed to be in to take the test to get me into freshman English. Today, that hour would be qualified as as “major test anxiety,” which I had never experienced before. I remember there were two essays, and I only answered one of them.

I did not pass the test. I told no one, and on the first day of classes I snuck into my required writing class, English 103. There were seven of us in the class. We all fit around one round table. I remember thinking the professor seemed really old. She had poofy, disheveled grey hair and glasses with dangling wire chains that mingled in with her necklaces. Her name was Clara Park, and I had heard she was one of the best professors at Williams College.

That first day we went around the room introducing ourselves. There were two Mike's in the class, they would eventually be Captain of the Football team and the Ice Hockey teams in our Senior year. There was Fred. I called him Fred-die because he talked- like- this. He was a PG lacrosse player from Andover. Cam was from Big Timber Montana, Segundo, for whom English was a second language and Jean, the only other girl in the class was from Yonkers, NYC. Ms. Park said we just couldn’t have two Mikes in such a small class, so without hesitation, one of the Mike’s said, “Call me Bruce,” and to this day I still call him Bruce.

We didn’t read much; we just wrote papers. So we got to know each other well. On my first paper I got a C+/D-. I was devastated. Clara Park seemed to write all over my paper with comments in the margins, and she would frequently draw these big red skeleton heads with empty eyes and crossbones underneath. It wasn’t until about halfway through the course that I realized her skeletons were there to point out my bonehead mistakes. I would see a skeleton with words attached, like “dangling participle.” But, at the same time, her sideline comments were always thoughtful and caring as well as critical. We continued to learn about each other, and I learned to write. I went on to take Freshman English that spring semester.

Those of us in that English 103 class still keep up with one another. As a student, Cam’s goal was to study economics and then move to New York, work for an investment firm, find himself a wife and move on back to Big Timber, MT. I play golf with a couple of them on occasion now. And run into the others at Reunions.

My students enjoyed my story, and then we moved on to spinning curves and finding volumes.

The night I shared this story with my class, I went home and dived into my file cabinet, pulling out those 13 handwritten papers from Clara Park’s class. The skeletons were not as scary, and it made me smile to read her comments on the side of my work. Then I read her final comments on my last paper, number 13. She wrote: “Thoughtful, attractively written, and well-integrated, especially in the way its conclusion echoes its beginning. Watching you turn yourself into a good writer has been one of the big satisfactions of my semester. And there’s a lot more to that than eliminating bonehead errors! Paper XIII: B+ Course: B”

I have definitely felt the way Clara Park felt about me with my students. It’s a satisfying feeling as a teacher.

A few weeks later, at the end of graduation, one of my students  came up to me.  She had tears running down her face, and she said, “Mace do you think I’ll have a professor and a class like you did in college next year?” I knew what she meant. Will that camaraderie among friends and support from faculty continue for her next year? I gave her a big hug and said with complete confidence, “Of course you will.”

I still think about that class and I still  appreciate Clara Park to this day. I saw her last summer when I was visiting my grandparents in the Williams College Cemetery. There she was, well her Gravestone. It was an easy four-foot putt away from my grandmother’s stone (also named Mace). When I visit that cemetery now, I always bring two sets of flowers.

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