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.
“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