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April 02, 2020

A kid from Kansas learns a lesson

English instructor Dudley Fitts imparts important life lesson
by Tod Howard Hawks ’62

I recall the first English class I took at Andover taught by the famous Dudley Fitts, a poet, translator of Greek plays, and—at the time I was his student—judge of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition.

My first assignment from Fitts was to write an essay over the weekend to be handed in at the next class. I worked all of Friday night and all day Saturday and Sunday on my essay. When Fitts returned it, I saw at the top of the first page the number 50 (that’s out of 100) circled many times in red ink with the following admonition: “Be yourself: If this is yourself, be someone else.” A kid from Kansas, I was stunned.

The assignment for the next week was the same, another essay. I tried to start writing it Friday night, but I was paralyzed. I could not write a word.

I remained paralyzed all weekend, until late Sunday afternoon when I left my room in Johnson Hall to see Dennis, who was also in Fitts’s class. I spoke to Dennis: “I’m trying to write my essay, but I can’t write a thing.”

“Go back upstairs and I'll catch you for dinner in 20 minutes,” he replied.

So, I went back to my room, sat down at my desk, and, amazingly, started writing. I wrote my essay in 20 minutes. I titled it “Going Through Old Things,” and it was about cleaning out my closet when I was a kid, finding broken toy soldiers, torn baseball cards, and the like.

I got my essay back the following week. At the top of the first page was the number 87, an honors grade. To the side of that number, Fitts had written “Good Work.” His earlier admonition changed my life forever.

A graduate of Columbia College, Tod Howard Hawks ’62 has been a poet and a human-rights advocate his entire adult life. You can read his poetry on Medium and hellopoetry. After Andover, Hawks worked briefly as a clothes model. This photo appeared in the September 1963 issue of Esquire magazine.
Categories: Alumni, Magazine, Magazine Online

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