in one of my classes this week, we were asked to write about our favorite k-12th grade teacher.
my mind went blank, before briefly thinking about a college professor that i really loved. i then remembered that the TA asked us to write about a teacher during our k-12th grade years. so i thought about my public school teachers but i couldn't really think about the specifics she was asking us to describe so that seemed like a bust. middle school was ok, but my feeling of being unsuccessful in school doesn't bring up warm and friendly memories of teachers. i was all over the place in high school...but then it hit me.
i took an african-american literature class in high school with a teacher that i had heard a lot about and hoped to take a class with. most students seemed really transformed by his classes and raved about him. being a shy student, he scared the shit out of me but i knew him and he knew me because my sister had taken several classes with him. small school settings make it hard to hide.
he was a burly man with a big pot belly and a lot of facial hair who always wore a flannel shirt, jeans and hiking boots. he looked like he was straight out of the woods. in reality, he was straight out of the woods - he actually lived in a log cabin in the woods somewhere by himself with no tv or phone. (i might be making part of that up, although i am 75% sure i am right about 100% of what's in that sentence). i always imagined him in the woods with all of his books, observing nature and smoking cigarettes. he was obvious about his love of teaching, literature and smoking. he never hid that from his students. it honestly felt like there wasn't a lot he would hide from us.
i can't tell you all of the books we read or the assignments he had us complete but i can tell you that something happened in that classroom which i had never experienced before in a class at this school. he was the first teacher who sat down in the circle with us. he was actually listening to us and we all knew by the way he leaned his body towards the person who was speaking. he told us about his own experiences when he lived in predominately black neighborhoods (harlem, to be exact) and how they related to the texts. here was this white man relating to all of the students in his class. all of us. in an environment that wasn't very diverse, this was the first class where i actually felt diversity. he taught the class without skipping any chapters or telling us that sections weren't important (i swear to you that happened earlier in hs when we read "invisible man" - my teacher told us that one of the chapters wasn't important so we can skip it but i read it and used it in a paper i wrote for that class. BOOM!). but he was the kind of teacher i wish i had taken earlier in my hs career and every year after that.
i recognized then, and i see more clearly now, that things aren't always as they seem.
as an adult and someone who works in education, i recognize now that he probably did hide things from us. it's almost impossible to not hide something because there are things that young people should not know about their teachers and that's completely ok.
he once told us in class that seriously brilliant artists are also the most fucked up people in the world. i believed him then but believing him also confused me. to me (and many others), he was so brilliant. but also a strange and isolated man. i wondered, and still wonder, if there was more to his story than we could have known.
in 2006, he passed away not knowing the impact he made on me and still such a mystery in my mind.
i've been thinking about him and this and more all week. i even dug up a blog post a classmate wrote about him after he passed away. at the end of class on tuesday our teacher said, "you should all think about emailing the teacher you wrote about to say thank you." i wish i had taken that opportunity back in the day when he was still alive. even with all of the mystery that surrounds his memory for me, i am grateful i had the opportunity to learn from him and get to know the brilliant, strange teacher i had always observed from a distance.
wherever he is now, in whatever other worldly place we go to when we pass away, i want to say thank you.