a letter to my English teacher

I had 3 or 4 English teachers in high school.  I don’t remember who taught freshman English and only remember Mrs. Price, who replaced Mrs. Joyce Ann Pharriss after she moved to California in the middle of my senior year, by consulting my 1970 Barker.  Sophomore year brought Mrs. Grace Molineaux, a force of nature with the size to match her personality.  She was a grizzled veteran of the grammar wars and didn’t brook sloppiness in her new recruits.  Mrs. Pharriss was, I know now, barely 10 years older than us kids, and treated us like a big sister who knew we could always do better because she had.  The school board had named the class “Man’s Cultural Heritage”, MCH for short.  It aimed to combine History, English and the rest of the social studies into a team taught broad overview of culture from Creation to present, and largely succeeded.  I still have the text to that course sitting on my living room bookshelf.  It helped they’d found the teachers to pull it off.  But this is about Mrs. Pharriss, so we’ll save those fond reminisces of other stalwarts for another day.   Make no mistake, English got taught.  Mrs. Pharriss saw to it you were on the right track with your grammar, spelling, punctuation, and style.  I just came across all my old papers from her class.  Even though most of them sport As, there’s still a lot of her red ink on them.  Some of my best friends who were with me in that class are some of the biggest grammar nazis I know.  But Mrs. Pharriss lovingly introduced us to the beauty that can be found in good literature and art.

So I was very happy when I found those papers in the “Vicksburg” box I had just confronted in my ongoing frenzied crusade at decluttering and organization.  I had to tell Mrs. Pharriss about it, then later tell her about my blog?  What better audience could a fledgling writer have than his old beloved English teacher. I just had to hope she couldn’t add red ink digitally.  There was only one Joyce Pharriss in the whole USA to be found on InstantCheckmate.  She lived in Menlo Park outside of Palo Alto – check – was 80 years old – about right – and got her social security card in Missouri – bingo!   Mrs. Pharriss was proud of her Missouri roots and had the accent to prove it.  I’d found my girl.  There was only one e-mail address listed (InstantCheckmate usually lists several, and they’re almost always all wrong).  I composed a brief note and fired it off, only to have it bounce back to me in minutes.  Drat.  But this gave me an excuse to use my new Docere stationery, enter the mailing address Instant Checkmate had for her, paste in my thwarted e-mail message with a few embellishments, stick it in an envelope with enough stamps pasted on from my steamed off collection to total 55 cents, slap on a UofM seal sticker on the back for good measure, and carry it to the post office drop box to send it off.  I do love the ritual of sending a personal letter.  I should put down the computer more often and send letters instead of e-mails.  I have plenty of stamps.

It gave me pause when I saw something from her in my inbox less that a week later.  I saw it on my phone during a lull in a basketball game we were losing, so it would be a treat to get home and read it on my computer while sitting in my La-Z-Boy before the fire, sipping a beverage.  It was a nice long e-mail.  She was amazed to think that one of her students of more than 50 years ago was now a professor emeritus.  Not to be satisfied by this news she noted that she did wonder “what happened between high school graduation and your retirement”.  She’d retired years ago, was involved in a book club comprised of old English majors (“both meanings of that adjective”) and had a daughter that was conceived about the time she left Vicksburg.  The husband whose work took her to California from Vicksburg had died in ’93 and for 22 years she’s been living with her high school sweetheart.  She was clearly open to keeping the correspondence going, so I thought I’d take a stab at her first bit of wonderment.

Hi Mrs. Pharriss

Jeez.  I should have contacted Mr. Kellar instead.  He just would have asked me if my equations still balanced, not handed me another damned essay assignment!

But since my last one to you came back with no red ink, maybe I’ve become a better writer, or you a softer grader.

Between Vicksburg and my retirement La-Z-Boy, there’s been a lot of stumbling upwards and things turning out mostly o.k.  Michigan was hard.  You were right.  They didn’t care about my high school accomplishments.  I screwed around my first semester, getting Bs and even a D on mid term reports.  Dad was not pleased.  I got my grades up but had no idea what to do with them.  Law school?  But not with how I talk.   Junior year I figured I did science pretty well so why not try for Med School?  That made everybody in my family happy and they stopped nagging me about what was I going to do with my life.  I was so late in my science course work by then, I couldn’t take the MCAT till my senior year putting at least one year between graduation and any med school start.  My advisor suggested I get a masters.  You could do Microbiology in a year with no thesis, so I did.  I applied to 9 good medical schools (I’d graduated “with high distinction” with a BS in Zoology and smoked my MCATs), and only got into one: the University of Chicago.  I think I’m still on the wait list at U of M.  Chicago was cold and hard, but I learned my trade, and it’s proven to be a good place to come from.   I’ve visited Hyde Park a few times with my wife recently, and actually got a warm nostalgic feeling for those old gray gothic buildings.  I was just middle of the pack in med school. When they told us first year everything was pass-fail, I relaxed.  Little did I know they were keeping two sets of books, and I never made any honors associations.  But middle of the pack from UofC is still considered pretty choice product so the Match Computer stuck me in a very good place: Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, a Wash U program, my 4th choice.  I was in London as a visiting student on match day, so I received the news by phone from the Dean’s office; “no shit!” was all I could say.  I chose Internal Medicine, of course, ’cause that’s what being a doctor is.  The training was superb.  U of M is minds of mush compared to Barnes.  And the St. Louis girls seemed to like very tall skinny wavy haired bespectacled boys in white coats.  I was a bit of a troublemaker and my chief chose to discipline me by withholding his approval of me to sit for medicine boards pending proof of a year of responsible employment.  So after finishing my 3 year residency, I stuck around St. Louis and expanded some of the moonlighting jobs I’d been doing already, making 3 times as much money as I’d ever seen before, living in a 16th floor penthouse apartment overlooking Forest Park.  Don’t cry for me.

Rheumatology is a never ending combination of Clue and Trivial Pursuit.  It caught my attention in the middle of medical school and never let me loose.  I aimed high again: UCSF, Barnes, Hopkins and U of M.  Only U of M asked me to come, and then only because my Chief-to-be, Giles Bole, chose to ignore the one scathingly negative letter in my packet.  Bevra Hahn apparently hadn’t liked the fact I that would sometimes leave her rounds early to drive to my moonlighting job.  I loved U of M right from the get go, and not just because I’ve always loved Ann Arbor.  The Division had a warm family atmosphere then (long since frozen out), the faculty were knowledgeable and friendly, they thought I was just the best, and offered me a job towards the end of my first year.  I met my wife to be Kathy 8 months into my first year and bought a house and put her in it towards the end of my second year.  We still live there.  One stipulation of my new appointment was that I would go to Chicago for a year to study with the guy who was doing the procedure (arthroscopy) they wanted me to learn.  I lived cheaply in a nice hospital owned apartment in Lincoln Park.  I got home on weekends, only a 4 hour drive, and Kathy and I survived to get married in October after I got home for good.

I think I leave the narrative there and pick it up later if you’d like

I started a blog January 12 and it’s been a blast.  One recent post “How we met” will tell you what you’d want to know about that.


The U made us keep a very detailed CV.  I can send you mine next time if you’d like.  Or would that be TMI?

Till then


Published by rike52

I retired from the Rheumatology division of Michigan Medicine end of June '19 after 36 years there. Upon hitting Ann Arbor for the second time (I went to school here) it took me almost 8 months to meet Kathy, 17 months to buy her a house (on Harbal, where we still live), and 37 months to marry her. Kids never came, but we've been blessed with a crowd of colleagues, friends, neighbors and family that continues to grow. Lots of them are going to show up in this log eventually. Stay tuned.

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