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Mildred Morgan Changed My Life

William Strunk, Jr.

Mrs. Morgan, my tenth-grade English teacher, was near retirement age in 1967, white-haired, lively, and enthusiastic. She smiled a lot. She loved teaching and loved teaching writing. She told me I was a good writer. Maybe she said the same to everyone, but her words encouraged me nonetheless.

She introduced me to The Elements of Style  by E. B. White and William Strunk. “Omit needless words!” she exhorted us, just as Strunk exhorted White, and as White exhorted Elements readers. It’s hard to find a word out of place in E.B. White’s sublime classic Charlotte’s Web.

I’m still trying to omit my own needless words, all the time. And I’m striving mightily to convince my writing students as effectively as Morgan, Strunk, and White convinced me. This semester two students have admitted that past advisors have encouraged the use of passive voice and big words whenever possible, because they’re more impressive to readers.

I always suspected this! Why else would I be reading sentences like the following?

As I analyze personal educational experiences, I’ve realized that the nation’s system of education is lagging, not so much in the sustenance of educational resources, rather there is a lack of care that has become institutionalized within education, stemming from congress and state government, slowly permeating into the classrooms and minds of the children exposed. 

How to respond to such a sentence? Teeth-gnashing? Primal screams? I write “wordy” in the margin as calmly as I can and remind myself that this unfortunate student never experienced the gift of Mildren Morgan.

How about you? Did a teacher change your life?

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