The Importance of Being Ernest
Forty-five years ago this September, at precisely 8 o’clock on a Monday morning, Harold Ernest Hall stepped through the doorway between his office and our Freshman English classroom on what was then numbered as the fourth floor of Old Main. He walked behind the desk that had once belonged to Ethel Booth, set his books on the lectern, and cleared his throat. What followed was the longest pause I had ever heard. Little did I know then that Harold’s pauses were the stuff of legend. I’ll confess that as a beginning freshman, unschooled in the importance of anything, I was given to counting Harold’s pauses, and even to timing their duration. But my silent irreverence didn’t last beyond Tuesday—we met every day of the week—because I discovered that those pauses were preludes to something worth listening to. They were, for me, a whole new way to punctuate, to give ideas pith and moment, to make a listener pay attention. They were a silent way of saying that not every word, not every idea, is as important as another, and that sentences need to be weighed before they are said. That was the first lesson Harold Hall taught us, and it wasn’t even the middle of the week yet. What followed, for me, were over four decades of lessons—although the second one came only a few days later, the following Monday, when Harold returned our first essays.
I had hand-written 486 words; in his reply, Harold had typed nearly 200. He said, and I quote: “Your theme . . . is not a satisfactory performance for this assignment . . . . You were assigned to write a personal narrative; you have turned out a sermon. Please understand that I do not object to sermons; but I don’t confuse a sermon with a narrative, and I don’t want you to do so either.” The essay sported a big red “C-” and the initials “HEH”; I was beginning to learn what the “E” stood for. This guy was earnest to a fault (except for that business about not objecting to sermons; Harold equivocated about that). In his earnestness he had deflated me, and I was angry and embarrassed—which is exactly, of course, what Harold, as a teacher of writing, wanted me to be. Later, in my room, when I was calm enough to take notice of all of Harold’s comments, I reread the very first one: “Your theme,” he said, “shows considerable promise for the future.” “Yes, sir,” I thought to myself, “I’ll show you that it does.” I don’t know how many years I had been teaching before I realized that an encouraging word to a student, judiciously placed, is the best motivator in the world, and that I had learned that simple truth from Harold Hall my second week in college.
But I want you to understand that my experience was not unique. Harold affected almost everyone the same way, to a greater or lesser degree. Cathie Brasch said Harold amazed her by supporting her unorthodox choice of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” as the subject of her semester paper. Jan McDaniel said Harold Hall set the example for thoroughness and dedication, tempered with an uncanny penchant for never taking himself too seriously. Craig Moore, now a senior analyst for the Rand Corporation in Los Angeles, said that Harold Hall persuaded him that effective writing is an indispensable craft, even for a major in mathematics. Craig says he uses the principles of composition Harold taught him every day of his professional life.