This week, I received a Facebook message from an old high school friend that saddened me. Our former American Literature and Rhetoric teacher had been killed in an auto accident. I was equally stunned that her obituary said she was only 80. I would’ve guessed she was a lot older than that.
Mary Eileen Driscoll. I’ll say her name. That’s not my practice in this blog, but I can’t bring myself to give her a pseudonym. She’s gone now and deserves to be acknowledged by, well, everybody.
Each of us has that One Particular Teacher that made all the difference. She was mine.
Miss Driscoll was a mold-breaking, one-of-a-kind teacher and human. From a thoroughly Irish-American Iowa family, she stood perhaps 5’ 2” in heels—which she of course never wore. She dressed frumpy and wore thick glasses and sported salt-and-pepper hair, as it turns out, at a rather young age. And she could strike fear into the heart of any 220-pound senior linebacker. She was utterly fearless and carried about her an implication of unknown danger if you dared to mis-conjugate the future perfect of “to propagate.”
As her students, we desperately wanted to please her—which was not easy. I can’t say we loved her then, but like a bottle of vintage burgundy, we adored her more and more as both she and our memories aged and mellowed. I am firmly one of those who look on my time under her tutelage with both great affection and the deepest gratitude. Without exaggeration, I can say Eileen Driscoll changed my life.
I don’t remember much about junior American Lit, I have to admit. Just snippets. She adored Emily Dickinson—so we read a lot of The Belle of Amherst. That both teacher and author were intensely private, never married, and possessed towering intellects may have had something to do with this. I still love Emily Dickinson. When I heard news of Miss Driscoll’s death, one of the first things that crossed my mind was, “When did I last read any Emily Dickinson?” Curious thing, that.
On the other hand, I have vivid memories of her senior Rhetoric class.
A word on that word. Merriam-Webster defines this as, “the study of writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion.” It’s a strange course title for what was basically Advanced High School English IV.
Driscoll’s Rhetoric cast a very wide net in what she found contributory to persuasive writing and speaking. For example, we ended every class session with a two-minute conjugation drill. Some poor unfortunates would be called upon to stand and conjugate whatever verb and whichever tenses tickled Miss D’s fancy that day. For a room full of 30 hormonally unbalanced and thoroughly neurotic teenagers, it was agony. But I insist on “I shall” and “we shall” and not those low-brow, down-market “I will” and “we will” to this very day. Conjugation drills—not kidding.
We also read a lot of classic literature, mostly Shakespeare and 19th- or early 20th-century English authors. We did a close, in-class read of Othello. Miss D loved explaining the Elizabethan jokes and entendres to us, I’m fairly certain so we could laugh along with her. And she did laugh—the lady loved Shakespeare, deep in her bones, and even after years of Othello or Macbeth, she shone with enthusiasm when we read them aloud in class. She told us something I repeated many times with my own children when they were high schoolers: “You have to work hard at Shakespeare, but he’s worth it.”
The centerpiece of senior Rhetoric, however, was The Paper. And said Paper was ONLY to be produced using The Driscoll Method. No variations, no coloring outside the lines. It was, without a doubt in our little brains, her way or the highway. And it was a true right of passage for three decades of students at Skeeterville High, including me and my older siblings.
The Driscoll Method went like this:
1. Do preliminary reading.
2. Develop and submit your topic for approval.
3. Create and submit for approval a working outline.
4. Find sources and create a working bibliography. Number each source.
5. Write 3” x 5” notecards with your research. These were very important and highly stylized:
a. One factoid/quote per notecard in ink.
b. Every notecard annotated in pencil with a “slug” from your working outline.
c. Every notecard annotated in ink with the source number from your working bibliography in the upper right-hand corner and the page number of your factoid/quote in the lower right-hand corner.
d. Turn in your notecards for review to make sure you weren’t deviating from The Method.
6. Finish your research.
7. Make any revisions to your working outline to create your final outline.
8. Go back and erase and replace on your notecards any “slugs” that have been deleted or changed in your final outline. (Get the pencil now?)
9. Collate your thick stack of notecards according to your final outline.
10. Create your rough draft by writing down through your notecard stack. [Author’s Note: This was an ingenious motivational tool—there is great satisfaction in watching your stack of notecards shrink.]
11. Create a footnote in MLA style for each notecard used in your rough draft, utilizing your handily numbered working bibliography. [Author’s Note: This is the part everyone hated, but it was essential. Did you ever try to “put the footnotes in later?” Disastrous.]
12. Turn in your rough draft for torture/comments from Miss D’s “Red Weapon.”
13. Take scrupulous heed of said torture/comments while revising for your final draft.
14. Get your mother to type your final draft. At least in my house that’s what you did.
Absolutely rigid and absolutely brilliant process. I got an A on that paper (and that class). I was never more proud of a grade in my entire life.
I can’t overstate the importance of The Driscoll Method to my subsequent academic and professional career. When I got to Tulane University the next year, I sat through one week of required English 101. It was a flabby, remedial, and boring pale shadow of Driscoll’s Rhetoric class. I went to the English Department chair and begged to be waived out, whining that I’d just done all this a few months ago. He thought he was calling my bluff by agreeing on condition he could choose a substitute English course for me—and plopped me into a 600-level paper-only seminar, “Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold.” It was ten seniors and grad students… and freshman me. But it was a PAPER seminar. I busted out The Method and… an A for the course. The professor asked me to enroll in his paper seminar for the second semester—I needed two English credits—and I agreed. Another A in another 600-level course. I also played handball with that prof, apropos of nothing.
After my freshman experience, I realized I could inflate my GPA by seeking out as many paper seminars as I could. I mean, who wants to cram for midterm and final exams when you have The Driscoll Method in your pocket? Over four years of undergrad, I never received lower than an A- on a paper. It was pure gold, The Method. Money in the academic bank.
Across four degree programs—bachelor’s, master’s, juris doctor, and master of laws—I used The Driscoll Method for every paper I wrote, including two master’s theses. As a practicing attorney, I used The Method for every memorandum of law and appellate brief I submitted to any court—and became the go-to Briefs Guy among my colleagues. Every scholarly journal article, every chapter in an edited volume, even an amicus brief for the U.S. Supreme Court—each one a product of The Method.
When I took an appointment as an assistant dean and professor at St Scoobius Law School in NYC, I gained a reputation as the prof to whom to send law students who were having trouble completing their required 30-page scholarly paper. My requirement for agreeing to supervise their research? They had to submit themselves to The Method. Soon, lots of students on law journal staffs came to me to supervise their Notes as well. All of them learned The Method. I even passed it on to one of the Legal Writing faculty to teach to her first-year students.
So yes, Miss Driscoll changed my life. For what professional success I enjoy today, I owe a goodly portion of the credit to her. And now, in my life as a novelist, I find I owe her even more. All of her students were like pebbles she tossed into the waters of the big, wide world—and the ripples from her influence on us student-pebbles continue to expand ever-outward, touching shores of which Miss D never even dreamed. That’s a powerful thing indeed.
She never married and was kind of our own Miss Chips. Never had any children? Nonsense, she had hundreds of children—all teenagers.
You can find my three historical novels–each greatly influenced by the teachings of Miss Driscoll–here.