The H in O-H-I-O

By Ramzy Nasrallah on April 28, 2021 at 1:15 pm
dr. james allen

"What if the best version of you is being held captive by a mediocre coward masquerading as you?"

I write like a doctor, which means my handwriting can't be deciphered by anyone - including a pharmacist. I can't read my own writing, which is fine because roughly 95% of everything I write down only matters for about five seconds.

That said, I am not a doctor. Mom and Dad, I'm sorry. Everyone else, you're welcome.

When I write something down that I know will be important for longer than a fleeting moment, I write s l o w l y. In 9th grade - which for me was the late 1980s in Upper Arlington, OH - that meant pressing a No.2 pencil with purpose against a college-ruled notebook. The imprint alone needed to be legible at least three pages deep. I had to be sure.

That's still how I write when it's going to matter for longer than five seconds. This felt important.

What if the best version of you is being held captive by a mediocre coward masquerading as you? Reading that doesn't capture the sing-songy, serious but jovial, commandeering but earnest, bellowing but measured tone that it was delivered in to a classroom full of freshmen.

It was an adult male voice you could not ignore, engineered to pierce your developing brain with delicate precision. Dr. James V. Allen, UAHS English teacher, AP Language & Composition and Creative Writing. Officially, that's what he taught at UA back then. Unofficially, he used literature as a cover. Dr. Allen was a life coach, whether he meant it or not.

I was only 13 and accustomed to being the youngest kid every year. I held myself captive by thinking about my age way too often, despite the fact I had skipped grades to earn the distinction. You see, I wasn't going to get my drivers license until the rapture. My poor command of English was another crutch. My acne, unconquerable. My social awkwardness, incurable. My dumb hair, untamable. My dumb everything, inevitable.

As everyone knows, at 13 it's too late to fix anything. Game over, man - a lifetime in captivity awaits. I was a hostage to myself with no hope for escape, and this gregarious Lit teacher in a pressed shirt, with slick hair and who clearly worked out more than the average bear was communicating in a code to my hostage self without making eye contact.

This question was meant specifically for me. At least it felt that way.

Dr. Allen was a huge Buckeye football fan, which is required in Upper Arlington.

What if the best version of you is being held captive by a mediocre coward masquerading as you, MATTHEW?

Dr. Allen routinely took his lesson's peak and used parallel construction to personalize it around the room to make sure everyone got a piece of it. He walked up to each desk, stamped his feet and asked it repeatedly.

What if the best version of you is being held captive by a mediocre coward masquerading as you, JULIE?

It hit hard. I had to write his question down s l o w l y and firmly so I could remember it later. I needed to ask myself this question every morning. I needed to escape this dumb captivity. And I had to finish writing it down before he reached my desk, when he would cartoonishly roll the Rs in my na--

What if the best version of you is being held captive by a mediocre coward masquerading as you, R-r-r-r-ramzy?

That was expected. He was standing right above me, looking down at my desk which was part of the U-shape arrangement he required for his classrooms. Dr. Allen didn't believe in rows. He was vehemently anti-row. He wanted us looking at each other's faces, not the backs of heads.

Whenever we entered the room and it was set up in rows, we dragged the desks to the sides so we could sit in a U. "Just like the Horseshoe, and I'm in the South Stands," he once said all sing-songy, serious but jovial, commandeering but earnest, with his arms making the H that the South Stands are traditionally responsible for making during spontaneous stadium chants.

Dr. Allen was a huge Buckeye football fan. That's not weird; it is actually required in UA.

When he tried to make eye contact with me I always looked directly at the monogrammed JVA on his pressed shirt pocket instead - it was the closest the mediocre coward keeping me hostage would get to making eye contact. Yeah, what if Dr. Allen. I thought. What if.

It had been a pretty eventful year in Columbus. Woody Hayes, known around UA (at least among us kids) as the frail old man who took walks a few streets from the high school had passed away that spring. The subsequent football season, Central Ohio's favorite season, would be the most turbulent one of the decade.

Dr. Allen receiving the Ashland Oil Teacher award.
Dr. Allen receiving the Ashland Oil Teacher Award in 1995. | Mandy McAfee/Norwester

I sat in my favorite class up to that point in my schooling life and soaked in Creative Writing lessons that were far bigger than how to properly rearrange words or construct a story. We had a fair amount of autonomy for what we wrote about and I took full advantage of it. I got to be the boss of me, at least for one class. Algebra was tyranny. Science was elitist. Lit was freedom.

So I wrote about the Iowa Hawkeyes. I wrote about the UCLA Bruins. I wrote about Woody's passing. I wrote about Earle Bruce's abrupt firing after losing on Senior Day to Iowa.

I wrote about how Earle's broken, despondent and triumphant Buckeyes who had been held hostage by mediocre cowards for most of that season trekked up to Ann Arbor that same week, fell behind by a bunch of points early and then came back to beat the Wolverines before carrying their crying and fired coach of the field, undefeated. At least that day.

And he gave me a C for that. And then another C. Sometimes there was a minus or a plus. I was a C student, to him.

I was doing all of Dr. Allen's assignments and turning them in on time. The problem was the coward pretending to be me was the one doing all the writing. That lit class in 1987 was less about grammar, diction and sentence construction (I've never been too good at any of that stuff) and more about learning how to refuse to betray yourself.

That was Dr. Allen's curriculum, though it wasn't explicitly noted on any syllabus or class description. AP Language & Composition? Man, I barely know what that is.

It took three years before I was able to grasp why my properly-structured, grammatically-sound papers about Iowa and Woody and Earle (and most everything else I attempted to shoehorn into a creative writing frame) were returned to me with a big fat red C on them.

I had been expecting to be rewarded for checking a box. It was kind of like my admission to Ohio State in 1991, back when it was open enrollment for in-state applicants, let alone the ones who went to high school literally down the street. I got into Ohio State only because I spelled my name correctly, which - this is a minor flex - most people in my life can't do. You don't get an attaboy just for checking a box.

You get a C from Dr. Allen. But you get into Ohio State, if you graduated high school in 1991.

Three years after my C in Creative Writing I got into his AP Language & Composition class, intent on proving to both of us that I had evolved and improved from my primitive freshman form when I was producing consistent C-level work. As he explained it to me my senior year, I was a walking study in irony, writing about ol' 9-3 Earle Bruce with a paper that would go 9-3 in a Big Ten schedule.

Earle didn't get fired for losing to Michigan (winning record vs. Bo) or for not winning enough games (winningest coach in the Big Ten during his tenure) or for changing the spring game date so he could go to the Kentucky Derby (it's true, that's why it's still in April) or for pissing off too many people - or for any of the litany of reasons anyone lucid in that era will confidently tell you why he was fired without blushing.

Earle was fired for checking the box. For winning exactly enough to avoid being considered a failure. For getting to two Rose Bowls in nine seasons. For making quota but never smashing it at a program that demands smashing.

This is a 9-3 paper. You are not a 9-3 writer. I didn't know as a freshman if he was inflating my writing ability to try and build some confidence in a zitty, awkward teenager. I did know as a slightly less-zitty and awkward senior that the papers I thought were good enough for an A were only going to beat Navy in the Liberty Bowl.

And that was the lesson. Anyone can learn grammar, diction and literary devices; this was much more sophisticated and important. I had been stealing from myself the same way I was holding myself captive. That shit had to stop, and by the time I crossed into my final semester in UA, it had.

I can't think of a single person who pushed me into that realm which freed me from my own captivity more than him. And it wasn't his job. Literature was his job. Freeing students from themselves was his passion. He did that for free.

The two people in my life who are jointly responsible for me still writing because I enjoy it - 30 years beyond high school - both passed away the day of the Ohio State spring game.

The H in O-H-I-O is now gone. The South Stands are missing their sing-songy, serious but jovial, commandeering but earnest, bellowing but measured voice. The rest of the Horseshoe feels vacant. The teacher who freed me from myself - I could not have been the only one - has transcended.

I was already informed of his passing and in the bargaining stage of grief by the time Brian from twitter tapped me on the shoulder, which meant I had already read his obituary online. It captured his contributions to academia, human development and progressive schooling. His awards and accolades are covered, and his captivating classes and teaching style are mentioned as well.

Every life box is checked. Dr. Allen got a 9-3 obituary. It's definitely going to beat BYU in San Diego.

That's fine, because most obituaries strive for bowl eligibility and nothing more. They are written for readers who didn't know the departed, usually by someone in mourning who just needs to check the boxes and turn it in on time. Obituaries can't capture the individual so they don't try too hard. There's danger in doing that and failing. It's safer to go 9-3 sometimes.

If I said Dead Poets Society was a documentary based on Dr. Allen instead of a work of fiction, it would be contrived - and there was nothing contrived about him. I will say that some people are paycheck players while others find their passion and use that to create more good than they take.

I was taught that as a freshman in a creative writing class. I finally learned it out as senior with the same teacher. Some of us are slow learners, but the destination matters more than the velocity. Dr. Allen's philosophy has never left me.

And until April 17, he had never been too far away.

dr. allen, sir try to remember to abide by 11w commenting policy please and thank you

Dr. Allen was an 11W commenter who read everything I wrote decades after he was no longer required to. I'll enjoy thinking about what he would have thought of this one, and why the big fat red C he's given it was justified. And I'll wear it with honor, while figuring out how to free myself a little bit more from captivity every day.

Thank you for everything, sir. I will miss you terribly. My vanquished mediocre captor will not.

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