On the peril of cliché: Helen Foley, Peter Levine, Hannah Arendt

My high school English teacher, Helen Foley, who helped me become who I am (at least the salutary dimensions), warned me against writing in clichés.  These are the antitheses of thinking, she said, and she was so right.  In all the years since, when I’m writing and a cliché floats to mind as an effective shortcut to convey what I am thinking, Helen Foley’s words exhort me to actually think and figure out how to write it in my own words.  And now I add to that Hannah Arendt’s observation that Eichmann failed to think what he was doing and invoked cliché instead. Peter Levine expands on the peril here.

Helen Foley (School Teacher)

Helen Foley died in 1998 and I didn’t even know it.  Not a month has passed without me thinking of what came of her and I often went online to try to find out, but nothing ever surfaced.  But now tonight I looked again and here rises to the surface a death notice 13 years old that says absolutely nothing about her life or whom she left behind.

I should contact Rice University to find out if she ever finished the dissertation she was writing on film in the English department 20 years before anyone did that and while she was teaching full-time at my school, Sharpstown Senior High, a school that later became so miserable that later George W Bush would make it his poster school for No Child Left Behind.

In a sea of kids with nothing much on their minds, some of us signed up for her “major works” English class.  She treated us all like geniuses, and we became a wee bit so.  She had us study Macbeth by way of watching John Huston’s, Kurosawa’s, and Orson Welles’ versions, over and over again, and then by reading the play outloud, then analyzing the Huston version scene by scene.  We formed the high school film society, and she got us all the equipment we needed so that we could film our own documentary (with actual film, back in that day). And I took on the job as camera man and went around the side of the building to film all the kids smoking dope and to ask them about it.  The result was a narrator-less narrative, so avant garde for a bunch of kids in the suburbs of Houston, Texas.

She taught us the Scarlet Letter, but she also taught us to write like like the 20th century demanded — no frou frou, no cliches, strong verbs, active voice, clean lines, and do it so that people actually feel what you are communicating.  I took this charge with me to the new Houston Public Library, all clean lines and bright structure, and tried to write a few lines like that building.  No cliches. One of the hardest things I ever did at 16.  One of the best.

She worried about kids like us.  I didn’t really know this until I came across the one article that pops up from her on JSTOR.  Here’s the first page:

To Sing the Street: Using a Community Film Program to Teach Composition

The English Journal © 1971 National Council of Teachers of English

Later in the decade that she wrote this, our little group showed up as her students.  I think she saw in us hope that her ideals might make contact with earth.  Maybe they did a little, but probably not a whole lot in her lifetime.  One of us went off to an elite college and bounced back the next year, unable to navigate the cultural divide.  Three years after high school I invited her to my downbeat apartment where I was finally starting college.  I was very happy to show her that one of us was actually going to college — at this big state U.  I can’t imagine what she was thinking, but she was very nice about it.

I don’t know who Helen left behind, but I can attest to this.  Helen pushed me forward.  If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.

I write this not so much to pat on the back all those tireless teachers out there but to recognize, and leave something behind, of this singular human being.  Adieu, dear Helen.