Finding the Elements of My Style

A story by David Kulle

It was the first class on the first day of my freshman year at Hamilton College. The year was 1971. The class was English 101 (or whatever number was then assigned to first-level classes). As I sat in the second-floor classroom in Root Hall, awaiting the arrival of our professor, Ivan Marki, I could hear the sounds of Rod Stewart issuing from nearby Dunham Dorm as my fellow students filed into the room and took their seats, seemingly, like me, a bit wild-eyed and nervous.

Actually, I was more than nervous. I was suffering from the soul-shocking death of my older brother the previous June, still emotionally numb, experiencing the twin guilts of leaving my grieving parents to come to school and being relieved to escape the torture of being home that summer. I alternately wondered whether I was fit to take on the intellectual and social challenges of college, and hoped that Hamilton was the change of direction I needed to revitalize my spirit.

I was also a bit peeved that I was taking a level-one English class. I had been lauded in high school for my writing ability--essays, plays, editorials, term papers, you name it--and thought of myself as a pretty good writer. Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that, based on my writing samples, I'd need to begin at the beginning. No study of the plays of Shakespeare for me, at least not yet. No long list of titles to purchase at the campus book store (at least I saved some money). The only books I'd been required to purchase for my class were John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty"--an essay that, while dense, was relatively short--and "The Elements of Style," by Strunk and White. A thin treatise and a primer? Really? How could this last us the entire term? How hard could it be? Boy oh boy, was I about to find out...

About Professor Marki I knew little, only what had made the rounds in the days before classes began. He was described as small of stature but nonetheless imposing, with a penetrating intelligence and dry wit that invariably put doubters in their place. He was, everyone claimed, a notoriously low grader. It was said he had been a colonel in the Hungarian army and emigrated to the U.S. after the 1956 uprising against the Soviets. Supposedly, he had known little English when he arrived but managed within a few years to earn a masters degree in English literature from Columbia and launch his teaching career. I still have no idea if any of this history is true, but it made for good gossip and an appropriate level of fear and respect.

When Prof. Marki entered the room, all talking stopped, and I first laid eyes on the diminutive man with a handle-bar mustache and regal bearing who was to make that class perhaps the most intellectually painful--but undoubtedly the most valuable--of my life. He explained that his mission was to take our writing from prolix chattering to concise analysis (or something like that). Our assignment was to read "On Liberty" and describe what we viewed as its central points and why. He would be returning our papers with numerical citations to Strunk and White's grammar rules, as appropriate.

Over the next few days I read "On Liberty"--twice--and began outlining and writing what I thought would be both extremely well written and insightful. I expected to see very few, if any, citations to Strunk and White from Prof. Marki. I was about to demonstrate what a mistake it had been to channel me to this first-level course. With enthusiasm and confidence, I finished my paper ahead of time and submitted it with a sense of excited anticipation. 

What I got back at our next class stunned me. 

 education,english,Freshman Class,Hamilton College,Intellectual Discipline,Ivan Marki,Maturing as a Thinker,Personal Development
  Hamilton College
Fall of 1971