When I was a senior in high school, I told my English teacher that I didn’t read the books. She smiled and told me she could tell. We were sitting on the bleachers after a Socratic seminar — what is it about bleachers and moments? The book I remember not reading the most was 1984. I got as far as man and woman meet for a fling in a field or something before I decided to let old George rest.
Thinking I’d be The Man by not caring too much about school and still doing fine, I took pride in being able to discuss the books without having read them. To a lesser degree, it also could have been because I read to the end of Heart of Darkness and was like, what?
Though I had a crooked learning attitude, that English class, and that teacher, helped guide me to an English major and teaching. I didn’t discover the joy of reading until later, but I do remember — while sitting at my desk by the door — the electricity of writing. My mid-year exam had two sections: reading comprehension and writing. Part one: F, as in no comprendes, señor. Should have seen that one coming. Part two: little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting.
Reflecting on my schooling career, I do not look back at many assessments like one looks at a picture of old friends. Yet, this exam stayed on the shelf. Fun fact: a colleague once asked me to tell my life story to our van full of students on a Habitat for Humanity trip. I included the English exam, and, not long after, my co-leader said I was telling the worst stories.
I don’t recall the prompt on the test. It was the white space that stood out to me. It was like the silence after a deep breath. When you feel the last bit of air leave you, when you close your eyes and see the flame, when you open them and see whatever you choose to see. It was also the conclusion and that sensation of putting the last piece into a puzzle. I wrote some wacky stuff about a maze — but I found a treasure there.
I also admired my teacher. Sure, she could have pushed me a little harder, but if she had I may not have discovered my love of writing and reading. After all, isn’t that why we go to school? To develop a love of learning? That’s what the brochure says at least.
She didn’t shame me. She didn’t tell me I wouldn’t get into a good college if I didn’t read Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece. She didn’t get upset or offended when I neglected her curriculum and my learning opportunity. I was a high schooler with a somewhat functional frontal lobe, very little life experience, a backpack full of angst — particularly when it came to girls — and she was the opposite. She also cared about me and didn’t hate me (note to teachers: if someone told you it’s good for students to hate you, ask for their research).
She invited me to share stories. A year after I graduated high school in 2009, the Goldin Foundation for Excellence in Education recognized her efforts. In a resulting interview, she said, “When students feel safe and really be themselves, they are able to take the most intellectual risks. Concrete knowledge and skills are obviously very valuable and something we are responsible for giving to our students to help them be competitive, but the ability to question and think critically, to think deeply about the human condition and our responsibilities to one another — that is what makes life meaningful. Literature and writing get them started down that path — and that is very cool.”
In 2020, I am an avid reader, a wishful writer, and an educator who tries to be like his high school English teacher. I also ditched the angst backpack for some other hopeless kid to wear around for a few years. It’s like ankle weights. They aren’t cool, but they serve a purpose.
Currently, I’m finishing up 1984. For anyone who is looking to have a spooky Halloween this year, give that a read while you analyze today’s political landscape. To my English teacher, I send an overdue thank you. I hope this note finds you in the jet stream, though the best stories are not required reading.