The Impossible Writing Assignment

Leo Beckwith, Writer Extraordinaire

Leo Beckwith, Writer Extraordinaire

One day in the spring of 1962, BY High eighth grader Leo Beckwith came to his friends with a request for help.

"I've just been given a writing assignment," he said, "and I don't know how to start."

"What class are you doing it for?" we asked him.

"Actually, it's not a class -- I'm writing it for the principal," Leo said.

"What's the topic?" we asked.

"Well," Leo said sheepishly, "he wants me to write about 'Why I Should Not Throw a Dictionary From a Third-Story Window' and he wants me to turn it in first thing tomorrow."

We thought we had written on every conceivable topic ever assigned to eighth graders. But this was a new one.

"How long does it have to be?" we asked.

"Two full handwritten pages," he said sadly.

We thought and we laughed, and we tried to put ourselves in Leo's shoes, then thought some more, but we just couldn't get our minds around this one.

We became more serious when we realized that this just might be the impossible writing assignment that we all feared.

We patted Leo on the back and sympathized, but couldn't suggest even one line that was of any help to him.

That night Leo went home and probably agonized all night. He came in the next morning tired but smiling.

"You got it?" we asked. "What did you say?" We were all curious and we passed Leo's essay around before classes started -- just before Leo had to turn it in to the principal.

Considering the age of the writer and and the tight deadline, it may be one of the best essays ever written -- on that particular topic. The math was a bit off, but the writing was on target.

We saved Leo's essay for posterity, and this is probably as good a time and place as any to share it.

Why I Should Treat Dictionaries With Care

Or, Why I Should Not Throw a Dictionary
From a Third-Story Window

By Leo Beckwith

1. They cost over $8.00 each.

2. It took Mr. Webster many years to write all of its things:
a. 130,000 entries with 20,000 new words and meanings,

b. 10,000 usage examples,

c. 4,700 usage tables,

d. 750 synonym paragraphs,

e. 1,800 terms illustrated,

f. 30,000 etymologies giving accurate word histories, and many others

totaling up to 281,650 different helpful things.

As you probably can see, this can't be done over night.

It took 100 editorial specialists and $3,500,000 to make one of these from nothing.

The definitions are based on actual records of the way English is written and spoken.

This book has 2,720 pages in it and each page took weeks to complete.

This book isn't mine, but BY High's. It doesn't cost me to use them, but BY High.

We are grown up people
[end of page one] and should treat a dictionary that BYH owns just as if it is ours.

When we destroy dictionaries from BY High we are doing the same thing as destroying one in the church.

We pay tithing which goes to the church, which goes to BYH to buy dictionaries and other things.

In a sense we are destroying our own dictionaries.

When we are throwing dictionaries around we are throwing God's ten percent around.

When we throw dictionaries we are not getting the work done that we should, and we are disturbing other people.

Maybe this dictionary wasn't paid for out of your 10% but somebody elses.

Would you be a friend very long if you went to your friend's house and threw a dictionary at him?

No, you would not. If you have to destroy property, destroy it at home.

Every dictionary should be treated with the respect that it took the people to make it.

These people even went to the work of making a loose-leaf dictionary for school students.
[End of page two.]

Leo, we your friends have to tell you that from that point on we looked at you with a new respect.

You were the student who faced the coldest wind of impossiblity, and came through with honesty and great style. We will never forget this, until now, unsung achievement.

Webster's Dictionary circa 1960

by Larry Christensen, Class of 1966