A Point of View © 1996
Quoting Lincoln and opening a door. How a writer is born
By Paul V. Montesino, PhD, MBA, CCP.
I made Massachusetts my home early in 1962, April to be exact. And while spending a few months trying to find a permanent address I lived in the town of Brookline adjacent to the city of Boston where I worked. The town had a High School evening program for learners of English as a Second Language (EASL), in other words immigrants. I suppose they still do. It took place two evenings a week and I didn’t wait too long to enroll.
One of the goals of the classes was to make the students increase our vocabulary. I am sure you agree that lack of vocabulary in any language creates an embarrassing situation for any person. In my many years of dealing with people who are not fluent with the English language, any language, I have noticed time and again, as have you probably as well, how folks substitute the words they are unsuccessfully trying to express with gestures of their faces and hands. Communication in those cases is deficient and unpleasant. Kids talk that way, not adults.
In one of the classes I attended, the instructor, a female English teacher of the High School who doubled as an EASL faculty member and whose name I have lost, gave us a simple homework assignment: describe a house in minute details using as many new words as possible. The assignment was due the following class.
I did my part as well as I could, describing an old farm house in disrepair, its shingles falling down, its windows broken, its doors ajar, soothe coming out of the chimney. As I was looking at the few sentences that made up my answer something else occurred to me. I wasn’t going to limit myself to the wordy assignment; I decided to add something new, something unique. The addition read like this: “And in a log cabin as dilapidated and poor as this, a child named Abraham Lincoln was born and grew up to become one of the great men in American history.” The writer hidden in me had opened up. I signed the assignment and turned it in.
I don’t know or never knew if my description of Abraham Lincoln’s home was one hundred percent accurate; as long as I had given a picture of humility and poverty in the man’s life I was happy. I guess writers have a lot of discretion interpreting things. I was not a fully developed writer then, but I was sure I was on my way.
Unfortunately, I befell victim of the flu during the ensuing days and had to miss work and my next English class. A few days later, while waiting for the street car to go to work, one of my classmates saw me and asked me the reason for my absence. She followed my explanation with these words: “The teacher was asking for you because she was very impressed with your comments on our vocabulary assignment.”
“That response”, commented the instructor to me when I returned to class the following evening, “was very creative, and I was wondering if you would allow me to keep it and show it to my daytime students as well”. Of course, I was so proud of those compliments that I had to answer in the affirmative. That an EASL student would serve as example for the native population made it sweeter.
This February, the 12th of the month to be exact, we remember the date when in 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born and lived in circumstances similar to what I had described in my school assignment. It is no secret that, in my mind at least, that assignment about the assassinated President became part of my birth and growth as a writer. And it doesn’t make it any harder when I happen to share with his humanistic principles.
Lincoln was not only remembered as a political leader, but also as an orator. The famous Address delivered at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863, stands as an example of brevity while being grand as a writer. The speech was 270 words and delivered in less than three minutes. That same day, and with similar intentions, another grand orator named Edward Everett, former Governor of Massachusetts, U.S Senator and former Secretary of State, delivered “the other Gettysburg address” as it is known these days. It took over two hours to deliver, proving that quality and not quantity is what really matters.
The thought that provoked my adding his name to my assignment was caused probably by that sharing of principles but mostly by the nature of ideas while we write. Ideas come to writers minds in droves. Some make it as sentences, some as paragraphs, others by articles or chapters and the luckiest ones by books. The few who don’t survive the process die and are discarded. So it is with great pleasure that, belatedly, I raise my glass to toast the memory of the teacher who gave my work as an EASL student such recognition. She created the first sentence for the books of my writer’s life.
And that is my Point of View today.