Synopses & Reviews
In Themes for English B
a teacher ponders the nature of meaningful learning, both in and beyond the classroom. J. D. Scrimgeour contrasts his Ivy League education to the experiences of his students at a small public college in a faded, gritty New England city. What little Scrimgeour knows of the burdens his students bring to class--family crises, dead-end jobs, overdue bills--leaves him humbled. Fighting disenchantment with the ideals of higher education, Scrimgeour writes, "How much I owe these students, how much I have learned. They know the score; they know they are losing by a lot before the game even begins, and they shrug, as if to say, 'What am I supposed to do, cry?'"
Scrimgeour's obligations to his students and his hopes for them glance off each other and sometimes collide with the realities of the classroom: the unread assignments and the empty desks. Is there too great a student-teacher divide? Can Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, or any other writer Scrimgeour teaches have something to say to a single mother with a full course load, two jobs, a sick kid, and a broken car? Yes, it turns out, and it is magic when it happens.
The pupil inside the teacher emerges when Scrimgeour finds unexpected occasions for his own ongoing education. Pickup basketball games at a local park become exercises in improvisation, in finding new strengths to compensate for age and injury. His collaboration on a word-and-movement performance piece with a colleague, a dancer mourning the death of a beloved niece, leads him into unfamiliar creative terrain.
A routine catch on a baseball field long ago, a challenged student in a grade school writing workshop, a yellowed statue of education pioneer Horace Mann: each memory, each encounter, forces revisions to a life's lesson plan. Scrimgeour's achingly honest, intimate essays offer clear-eyed yet compassionate accounts of the trials of learning.
"In poet and professor Scrimgeour's collection of essays, he considers his role as teacher-advocate at Salem State College in Massachusetts, a place where the disadvantaged students 'know they are losing by a lot before the game even begins, and they shrug, as if to say, "What am I supposed to do, cry?"' In deliberate, graceful language, Scrimgeour contrasts his privileged but uncomfortable Ivy League education with the choices facing his students, incorporating his personal life-he moves to Salem with a wife and a young son-and his scholarly work on Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes to great effect. Scrimgeour is clear-eyed, probing and eloquent in his considerations of class, race, security, bravery and other qualities he and his students do and do not confront through education, and in his quest to understand his students-why, for example, the best ones often stop coming to class once he praises their work. The latter third of the book is less polished and more haphazard; a discussion of a modern dance piece lacks immediacy, and his discussion of his evolving basketball skills might prove too self-absorbed to hold readers' interest. Aside from these faults, this portrait of a teacher, a school and an education system all struggling to progress-and to find meaning in the progression-is insightful and entertaining." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Told in a humane and inviting fashion, Themes for English B gives us a poignant glimpse into the mind of a man fighting disillusionment with the ideals of the visionaries of the past and the privileges that brought him, a white Columbia graduate, to the halls of Salem State College where he teaches in Massachusetts."--Robin Hemley, Director of the Nonfiction Writing Program, University of Iowa
"Writing organizes life. J.D. Scrimgeour lays his life out like themes on a desk. Here a paper on teaching; there a paper on basketball—all the papers full and rich with wonder and thought, all the themes As, teaching and delighting, making readers ponder their own lives."--Sam Pickering, author of Letters to a Teacher
About the Author
J. D. Scrimgeour coordinates the creative writing program at Salem State College. He is also the author of the poetry collection The Last Miles. Scrimgeour's writing has appeared in such publications as the Boston Globe Magazine, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Thought and Action.