Essay: The Dictionary – By Paul Stokstad
I looked up a word in the dictionary the other day. Sorry I can’t recall which word. There’s only one word that I keep misspelling that I know of: marriage. For some reason I can’t seem to get that one right. The irony of that inadequacy is not lost on anyone who knows my history of missed out and messed up opportunities in the marital arena.
But it’s not the word that’s important, it’s the dictionary itself. I gave a dictionary as a gift to my ex-wife’s oldest when he graduated from high school. There’s nothing so forgotten as the non-father ex when the kid graduates. Step parents who subsequently divorce get no more respect than Rodney Dangerfield, who is at least famous for it. So, the big event is taking place, and the only thing that I can think to do, since I’m not invited to the graduation, the reception, or even expected there, is to give the kid a dictionary.
You know, the Webster’s Seventh or Eighth New Collegiate version. Now there’s a gift which shows a secret desire for immortality. A dictionary is one thing that you don’t seem to ever throw away. You look at it all through college, you refer to it when you write your resumé, you resolve dinner time arguments with your wife with it, and it goes from shelf to box, box to shelf, through move after move and never goes away.
Sometimes you leave most of those books in boxes or in storage for weeks or months. Unpacking your books is a true sign of having moved in, since “moving in” doesn’t always happen right away, even if you’ve lived somewhere for months. But you don’t leave the dictionary in those boxes. That has to come out right away, with the other essential stuff.
And another thing, it’s a great place to stick your college transcript. Where else would you put that yellowed document so it wouldn’t get lost in all of the shuffles? For a long time that’s where I stored mine, where I could find it for that new resume, or just to gaze at the thing now and then and be transported back to Russian Lit. class while demonstrators roamed the halls announcing the next big gathering and the wooden building next door burned in the middle of it all but apparently by accident and the only real student-mentality tragedies were a few unsubmitted Ph.D. theses up in smoke.
It’s immortality, that gift, I swear. Despite the spell checker, it’s going to be there. I guess there was a little desire to be remembered by the guy. Just to soften the blow of such a practical gift I think I got a Gary Larson cartoon collection and stuck it in the package, too. No need to be remembered as a drudge. But the real gift was the dictionary.
I know it’s real, too, because my dictionary has followed me through several divorces, at least fifty household relocations, on the bus from Texas to Iowa following that bleak good-bye in Dallas, stuck in the back of the Chevette on the way back to Laguna Beach, propped up on the shelf on a cinder block or on the floor by a futon through Kent State, Disco Inferno, Chomsky’s Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Pacific Advertising and Design, Viola Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theatre, and Stokstad’s course in Advertising Copywriting.
And the immortality associated with my dictionary goes to Miss Struble, who gave me that dictionary when I graduated from high school. Which might not seem that surprising except when you consider that I had moved a hundred miles away two years before and graduated from another high school.
But those people that knew Miss Struble wouldn’t be surprised.
Miss Struble, Miss Struble, Miss Struble. Where to start? Yes, this entire discussion hasn’t even started, because this essay isn’t about dictionaries at all. It’s about her; Miss Struble who taught French and Latin in a progressive school in my hometown of Cedar Falls, Iowa; Miss Struble who would take the entire family out to eat for no apparent reason other than the fact that my parents were broke; Miss Struble who gathered boxes and boxes of canned food and gifts every Christmas and had her Latin classes help deliver the stuff and sing Christmas Carols.
That Miss Struble.
Everybody looks back and has one or two memorable teachers, the one that made a difference, the one that gave a little extra praise or attention, or who provided a model for what a person could become.
It’s hard to say which Miss Struble was. In describing her, I’d have to say that she was a bit on the stern side. And I don’t think that I ever did that well in her classes, since her classes are the only ones in my memory in which I actually got a grade of “C.” Latin memorization. Not a skill area.
Still, there was some unwritten learning going on in her classes. We always felt her firm, but just, guiding hand. There was a sense of order and dignity through every class, which showed in her neat handwritten exercises which would already be on the board when we arrived each day, and in the systematic way that she handled the flow of the class, tardiness, noise, and any other departure from her standards.
Yet in the midst of all of that order and control, there was always respect for us, in little things, like the birthday “ceremony” which, like any ceremony, always had the same words and actions. With the unchanging phrase “We have a special day today,” she would extract from her desk an unopened box of chocolates, which she would quietly bring to the person at the end of the row in which the honoree sat, where the chocolates would begin disappearing in their trip toward the birthday boy or girl.
But she would never say whose birthday it was. When asked why she said that it was because some people may not want their birthday announced. Which was in many ways a futile gesture with fifteen kids whispering and pointing and one kid looking down the row, red-faced, waiting for their piece of Russell Stover’s finest. Many of us thought it was because some of the kids in our class were really old, like seventeen or eighteen, instead of fifteen like most of us, and still trying to pass Latin class, and she didn’t want to embarrass them by drawing attention to their over the hill status.
But mainly we just saw dignity, order, intelligence: a disciplined life devoted to the study and teaching of language and culture. Our own Vestal Virgin devoted to a higher power: the power of learning to unfold an educated personality from a distracted, fidgety, and sometimes lazy group of future adults. And all of that dignity, purpose and control tempered by an obvious care and kindness.
She was really a model to ponder for the rest of your life. Or, in this case, my life.
I know I’m not alone, either. There are many hundreds of students who sat pondering Vibia Tertiaque and whether Italia was longa or vida under the careful tutelage of Miss Struble; students who must also have occasionally looked up from the Scott Foresman Latin texts and wondered about this disciplined, remarkable personality. For me, it would be a great accomplishment to write the one definitive character study on such a quietly influential woman. Many people across the globe, if they read what I had to say, would nod their head, smile to themselves, and remember those chocolates.
I should mention my major indebtedness to Miss Struble’s birthday celebrations, which included singing happy birthday in Latin, where she gave a subtle hint as to the identity of the honoree by using the proper gender in the proper place:
Dies natales tibi laeta sit
Dies natales tibi laeta sit
Dies natales tibi cara amica
for the girls, with the final line changing to
Dies natales tibi care amice
for the boys.
Singing “Happy Birthday” in Latin might seem like a useless skill, but it has provided me with a standing joke at many a birthday party, and in some situations got me a bigger piece of cake.
Still, this is just one anecdote, and it’s hopeless to do justice to Miss Struble without an entire book. And even if I wrote a book it could only give the overview. I just know that there are many people who know other parts of her story, and that they all hold their gifts from Miss Struble, because for each of them she was their formative teacher, their memorable teacher, and maybe some of them are still carrying around and packing and unpacking a dictionary.
I see her once every few years. When I was newly married and living back in Cedar Falls, I shoveled her walk in the winter. And it was never clear whether I was doing it for her because she really needed it, or whether she was having me do it because I really needed the money.
In more recent years I rarely get back to the home town to see her. My family members now live elsewhere so I don’t get back there much unless there’s a tennis tournament nearby or something.
Sometimes it has been tough to visit her, because she still can take on the teacher role. Like the time she listened to me intently for five minutes and then leaned forward and said “Just get rid of that ‘You know.'” I was using the phrase “you know” in that kind of stalling speech pattern that many people have. It’s amazing how hard it was to talk after her comment while planning not to say something. But, you know, I moved on somehow.
Now I wonder how she is doing. Latin teachers don’t last forever. But if memory adds a bit of immortality to an already full and remarkable life, she has a lot of immortality coming from a lot of people. In the meantime, I imagine that she’s still keeping her own house there in Cedar Falls on Olive Street, helping other retired teacher friends who don’t think or function quite as well, and possibly dreaming now and then of walking the seven hills of Rome, a young, beautiful scholar, scroll in hand, on the way to another one of those great speeches by Cicero.
For my part, I’ll always remember her, and not just because of the dictionary.
Still, I know her gift will always be there on the shelf, helping me to get both the little and the big words straight. Really, I’m a hot dog speller. I’m a teacher and a writer and make money editing other people’s stuff. But everybody’s got a few words that they just can’t seem to get straight, like that pesky word marraige. I mean mairage. Mirage? (wait, I’m checking in the dictionary — I’ll get right back to you…).
Paul Stokstad – 1990 or so