If I had to name the person, other than my parents, who has made the most significant impact in my life I would have to list Dr. Joanne Amspoker. I was a poor student in high school: my GPA was 2.47 and I graduated number 199 out of 360. I disliked school and saw little reason to pay attention and mostly spent classroom time doing homework for other classes. In four years of high school, I only took books home one time, for a research paper I had to type. I was a good student in grade school but developed an “authority problem” when I was in Junior High. I started getting “D’s”, and were it not for the efforts of one of the counselors, Mr. Buzz Collins, things would have been even worse. Things had improved slightly by the time I reached high school.
At the same time, I had always been a compulsive reader, and my parents had a fairly extensive library, which I supplemented with books from the city library, which was two blocks from my house. I’ve always read very fast and so I could assimilate lots of information very quickly. When I was a freshman in high school, I had to take “Reading”, which mainly consisted of reading from a box of short stories attached to tests, which were organized by color in order of difficulty. The program was called SRA. We were given an assessment test, the results of which guided the instructor to which level we should start at and then were tasked with moving up through the box. If you’re a Baby Boomer, this will be a familiar sight:
The reading teacher, Dana Yensen, told me she wasn’t sure what to do with me as I’d finished the test in record time and got all the answers correct. I was tasked with reading at the “purple” level which was at the top. I quickly read through all the material and took all the tests within a week or so. Mrs. Yensen, fresh out of college, was puzzled by this and wondered “what to do with you”? She just let me read.
Evidently, my high school years weren’t a total waste of time as my SAT scores were good enough that I was asked to participate in the Freshman Honors program at OCE, (Oregon College of Education, which is now Western Oregon University). I was asked to attend a meeting where the details of the program were explained to us and the instructors involved talked for about 15 minutes about what the classes would be like. There were programs in Western Civilization and Literature, you’d get an extra hour of credit compared to the standard classes (this was due to a large outside reading list that we would be held accountable to read, and a much more advanced textbook than the standard classes) and there would be fewer than 20 students admitted to each class. Former students who had been involved in the program also got up to speak and one of them happened to be an RA (resident assistant, a student who acted as a resource and assistant to the dorm’s “House Mother”. I asked him his opinion, and he said: “It was the best thing I’ve done here, Dr. Amspoker is a great lecturer and the small classes and extra one on one meetings with Dr. Amspoker are also worthwhile.”
Dr. Amspoker grew up in the city of Eugene Oregon, and did her undergraduate work at Reed College, graduating in 1941. She obtained her masters at Radcliffe and her Doctorate at the University of Minnesota in 1953. She came to OCE in 1961.
She did turn out to be a wonderful lecturer and the time spent in her classroom passed very rapidly. The first midterm I wrote for her turned out to be a disaster, and I was gifted with a great big “D” in red on the top of my exam, along with this note “Please schedule a meeting with me during my office hours, we need to talk.” There was nearly as much red ink on my exam as there was blue. She pointed out fused and incomplete sentences and a host of grammatical errors a mile long.
The meeting was equally brutal: “You seem to grasp the ideas and concepts, but your writing makes it seem like you don’t. I spared you an “F” so you have a chance to bring your grade up to a “C” so you can stay in the group, but you’ll have to work for it. To show me you’re serious, I’d like you to write essays on some outside reading assignments. You’ll then turn them into me and I will correct them. I will do this for as long as you continue to show improvement. Otherwise, I’ll need to give your seat in the honors program to someone who deserves it”
I’m sure she put this in a more elevated fashion, but her point was clear to me. I agreed to her terms. it was a painful process, and one she worked harder at it than I did, I think. I must have improved though, as she kept doing it. I managed to score high enough on the final to get a “C” in the class. This was the last “C” I ever got from her and I took over 30 hours of classes from her before I graduated. I got a “B” in the 102 class winter semester and earned an “A” in the spring 103 class. She wrote “nice exam” on top of the first page along with a nice, big red “A”. She couldn’t resist putting a couple of suggestions for more economical writing, but the essays were mostly free of red ink.
My life would have been so different if not for her. I’m not so sure I would have stuck it out otherwise. She had taught be that the best way to write quickly was to use a skeletal outline as sort of a checklist to make sure you cover everything in a logical order and when I was in law school this proved invaluable as one needs to lay everything out in logical order insuring you covered all the issues and both sides of the argument.
I find it hard to write anything without thinking about her, in fact every time I use either a colon or semicolon her image pops up. I have retained a lifetime love of history, particularly English History, and she was a ghost with me on a trip to England a couple of years ago.
I’ve often wondered what happened to her. I sort of expected at least a building named for her somewhere or perhaps an English style garden. The only thing I found about her was that she was involved in a lawsuit concerning sexual discrimination. She passed on in 1988 at the age of 66.
I write this in the hope that others who took classes from her will find this and comment further. As I said, she was a brilliant lecturer and her love of history and historical figures brought things to life and made you want to investigate further. At least it did for me. One of the biggest honors I’ve ever had bestowed on me was having her ask me to speak to the incoming Freshman class: “I know you’ll be honest and fair.”
I hope I talked at least one of them into it.