Themes for English B
A Professor's Education In and Out of Class

J. D. Scrimgeour


"Writing organizes life. J.D. Scrimgeour lays his life out like themes on a desk. Here a paper on teaching; there a paper on basketball—all the papers full and rich with wonder and thought, all the themes A’s, teaching and delighting, making readers ponder their own lives."
—Sam Pickering, author of Letters to a Teacher

"Told in a humane and inviting fashion, Themes for English B gives us a poignant glimpse into the mind of a man fighting disillusionment with the ideals of the visionaries of the past and the privileges that brought him, a white Columbia graduate, to the halls of Salem State College where he teaches in Massachusetts."
—Robin Hemley, Director of the Nonfiction Writing Program, University of Iowa

In Themes for English B a teacher ponders the nature of meaningful learning, both in and beyond the classroom. J. D. Scrimgeour contrasts his Ivy League education to the experiences of his students at a small public college in a faded, gritty New England city. What little Scrimgeour knows of the burdens his students bring to class—family crises, dead-end jobs, overdue bills—leaves him humbled. Fighting disenchantment with the ideals of higher education, Scrimgeour writes, "How much I owe these students, how much I have learned. They know the score; they know they are losing by a lot before the game even begins, and they shrug, as if to say, 'What am I supposed to do, cry?'"

Scrimgeour's obligations to his students and his hopes for them glance off each other and sometimes collide with the realities of the classroom: the unread assignments and the empty desks. Is there too great a student-teacher divide? Can Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, or any other writer Scrimgeour teaches have something to say to a single mother with a full course load, two jobs, a sick kid, and a broken car? Yes, it turns out, and it is magic when it happens.

The pupil inside the teacher emerges when Scrimgeour finds unexpected occasions for his own ongoing education. Pickup basketball games at a local park become exercises in improvisation, in finding new strengths to compensate for age and injury. His collaboration on a word-and-movement performance piece with a colleague, a dancer mourning the death of a beloved niece, leads him into unfamiliar creative terrain.

A routine catch on a baseball field long ago, a challenged student in a grade school writing workshop, a yellowed statue of education pioneer Horace Mann: each memory, each encounter, forces revisions to a life's lesson plan. Scrimgeour's achingly honest, intimate essays offer clear-eyed yet compassionate accounts of the trials of learning.

Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction

Page count: 160 pp.
Trim size: 5.5 x 8.5


List price: $28.95

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J. D. Scrimgeour coordinates the creative writing program at Salem State College. He is also the author of the poetry collection The Last Miles. Scrimgeour's writing has appeared in such publications as the Boston Globe Magazine, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Thought and Action.