Ah, the infamous “lost art.” One could fill in a number of notions after the three dots in the above title. A few phrases or words come to mind: kindness, gentility, non-electronic friendship. Less serious, too: tea brewing, whittling, even for many of us, gardening. Yet here I would submit for your consideration, letter writing.
This week I had a very unique experience. I received in the mail a single packet of four letters; one of which was a thank-you note written to Elaine Jakes by my beloved high school teacher, Zinaida Sprowles, whose first name means “belonging to Zeus.” And godlike she was, for Mrs. Sprowles, who is mentioned in the Curious Autobiography (p.101), was the under-appreciated gem of the New Hope-Solebury High School faculty. Originally a Latin teacher, Zinny (for so she was called) was, by the time I had her in school, nearing the end of her career. By then they had phased out Latin (so was the trend then, as the administration could see no use for it) and relegated the tenured, and therefore not able-to-be-fired erstwhile Latin teacher to teaching English courses, though they allowed her to retain the honors students’ section of what amounted to the best college preparatory courses at New Hope-Solebury, classes that were essentially Great Texts (or what is sometimes called Western World Literature). I was not an honors student, and thus I had no access to that track or to Mrs. Sprowles, unless she happened to teach a regular English elective.
Fortunately for me, she did just that, but it was the second term of my junior year. Hitherto I had known Mrs. Sprowles only from the school hallways. Yet, having met with Mr. Karl Richter, the school’s guidance counselor, with his help I constructed a schedule that included a strange elective—strange for me, that is, because I was a numbers kid, excelling in Physics and mathematics and a member of the geekily (but sadly all too fittingly) “Mathletic Team.” The elective in question was “Detective Literature,” and it focused almost entirely on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and the figure of Sherlock Holmes. It was taught by none other than my hallway-only acquaintance, Mrs. Sprowles.
Class by class Mrs. Sprowles vivaciously led discussions on the characterization of Holmes or Watson, Doyle’s craft in writing, tension, climax and resolution of each work, construction of plausibility, and the list goes on. I had never encountered a teacher of this caliber. Why, I wondered, was she the only teacher in New Hope-Solebury who had no desk, no classroom? Was it some kind of less than subliminal message from the administration? In any case, she was the self-styled peripatetic pedagogue, though she was far more academic and Platonic than she was categorical and Aristotelian. In fact, that is what made Mrs. Sprowles so profoundly delightful: she was not someone who observed and put things into boxes but she was utterly academic, someone who sought the highest origins and deepest forms.
And that is what must have frightened the administration of New Hope-Solebury High School in those days, the fear that students would become so enamored of learning that they would follow this peripatetic pedagogue just anywhere she might happen to meander in her academic wandering. Indeed, some of us did. Having used whatever influence she had left with Mr. Richter, she managed to squeeze me into her honors class (even though I had been, outside of math and physics a grade-wise dishonorable student), she led me and the rest of that senior seminar to the theater of Dionysus where we witnessed by reading the Oresteia and came to understand the importance of justice and democracy. We would follow her to the ancient agora, where we could overhear Socrates speaking with the young all too self-righteous and overconfident Euthyphro in front of the Stoa Basileios. And, like all the truly great educators such as Socrates, she was misunderstood by the higher-ups.
This is the area, I think, in which Elaine Jakes and Mrs. Sprowles would have fundamentally connected, for both were educators of a similar ilk, all too often misunderstood by all but their students. Yet that letter that Mrs. Sprowles wrote was never sent, presumably because it fell into a crack in the desk or was covered over by two days’ worth of mail and, by the time Zinny found it, it was too late to send. Yet why did she keep it all those years? That I cannot ever know. But I am glad that her daughter took the time to send it to me, along with three other letters written by a very young version of myself—a first-year college student at Dickinson—to his former high school teacher and inspiration, Mrs. Sprowles.
I’m not writing to say that I thought, when I read them, that my own three letters were well written or conveyed anything more than sincere appreciation to a wonderful teacher, or even that Mrs. Sprowles’ note to Elaine Jakes is anything to write home about. Rather, these four letters collectively reflect something bigger, something that is actually worth writing home about: the lost art of letter writing. It is truly a lost art, for art is an aspect of letter writing, as it involves several artistic choices.
First, one must find the right stationery. If one chooses a note format, as Mrs. Sprowles did in her unsent note to Elaine, one must ensure that the card befits the occasion, even if it is blank inside. Then there is the issue of penmanship. Here I’m afraid I fail miserably. Even my finest penmanship is shoddy at best, and I blame my fourth-grade self for snickering and treating as trivial the lessons of Mrs. Hendrickson, my teacher that year, who labored relentlessly to get me and one or two others in the class (was it Mickey? Todd?) to write more legibly. Then there is content, which of course is the most important bit. Yet even that comes out differently with a pen on paper than it does in a computer. It is not correctable on paper: one must get it right the first time.
And this is an art, an art that I was confronted with from a former generational iteration of myself. In case you’re wondering, other than the penmanship and poor choice of stationery, I did okay. But Mrs. Sprowles’ note was far more meaningful. How good it was to see her handwriting again after so many years. How rich and thrilling to know that she had cared enough to write my mother a note—a note I would never have known about had Mrs. Sprowles actually ever have sent it. And that is the key part of the art, the production of the artifact of the epistle itself.
Memory is such a funny thing: it allows us to record in some deep recess of the brain a meaningful event, and never let go. It is something like hope, but backwards. In his Confessions, Augustine demonstrates the power of memory by going back in time to his childhood and his life as a young adult and rendering it all in seven lovely and quite memorable books. But then in the eighth book he begins to shift the notion of memory around so that with the final five books he has reoriented his own and the reader’s mind as he engages ideas that are otherworldly, heavenly. The way he does this is to anchor himself and the reader in the past by memories, one upon another. Mrs. Sprowles’ short note did that for me this week, and my mind looks forward to an otherworldly hope of sitting for tea with her again in a place far away that some of us call Home. I hope she has some of her delightful cinnamon buns with that tea, for I recall the last time we met we enjoyed them together, yet another sweet memory; but a sweeter hope.