My junior year in high school I had an honors English teacher named, Mr. Black. Junior year English should have been freaking amazing. It was all epic literature. It was steeped in medieval folklore and fascinating dystopian novels. After my first week with Mr. Black, I loved him. He was my kind of person. He was slightly cranky, but also highly focused on artistry. It should have been a so much fun.
Mr. Black had high expectations. Higher than any other teacher I had ever had. While his lectures were fascinating, his homework was monstrous. Miss two days of at-home reading for theater practice and you were buried. I distinctly remember our test on “Ivanhoe”. It was four pages of questions where I asked myself more than once if I had read the wrong book. Then, there was a bonus question at the bottom: “Did you enjoy this book?”
I don’t pick fights often, but when I do I lash out like a caged tiger. After four pages of frustration I answered that last question way too honestly, “I would have if I had been given the time to.”
I can tell you from this experience, if you ever really wanted to be noticed in a class this is a sure fire way to do it. I became a focus and a target in every class.
I dreaded going to my English class. The results of my test on “Ivanhoe” almost got me kicked out of the play. I had to try harder or give up theater. The next few weeks were rough.
However, as the school year went on something happened. I started to see things from a new perspective. I started to understand metaphors on a whole new level.
By the time we got to the dystopian novel, “We”, I was seeing the bend in the road before it was on the horizon. After getting through the book (at breakneck speed), we were asked to write a poem about something from the novel. I wrote a metaphorical poem about a crystal and how it represented both light and dark. After turning them in, all but mine was handed back to the class. The next assignment he had planned was to take the poems which he assumed were going to be literal context from the book and turn each line into a metaphor. I had somehow fulfilled the lesson before he had the chance to teach it and he didn’t know what to do with me. Eventually, he asked me to draw a picture that represented my poem. (Because, you know, letting me not have homework was out of the question. Jerk.)
We finally got to the end of the year. I was doing pretty well in that class, but I was thrilled to never have to do it again. I was free from the stress of being “on” for his class. I was free of the workload. I was free of being the target.
Summer came and went in a blur and it was now senior year. I had an awesome teacher for English, Mrs. Strong. Along with literature we learned scandalous things from her like why fancy restaurants are always dim. (Less chance to see wrinkles when on a date.) Why so many teachers didn’t have children. (We already have to parent countless kids for other people, why would I want to go home and do the same?) And, the biggest scandal of scandals, why Victorian romantic authors love to talk about the sky and the leaves on the trees so much. (What position do you have to be in to be looking at the sky and the underside of the trees? Hmmmmmm?)
One day in the middle of the year Mrs. Strong was out sick. No big deal. High school days with substitute teachers are some of the best. It was basically a day off. Even if the teacher left notes on what needed to be taught, the substitute usually didn’t really understand it and could easily be distracted. Not this time. This time our substitute walked in from the back of the room and strode up to the front of the class. Mr. Black!
My heart sank and my stomach tried to tie a knot around it. Before he had reached the front of the room he was telling us to open up our books to a poem called “The Naked and The Nude”. He gave us ten minutes to read the poem.
I read the poem. I was so nervous that upon reaching the end I realized I had no idea what I had just read. I read it a second time. I started reading a third time when our ten minute allotment was up. I couldn’t wrap my brain around the words. You could have given me “Humpty Dumpty” and I wouldn’t have made sense of the words in front of me.
Mr. Black walked to the front of the room and wrote the words “Naked” and “Nude” on the board. By this point we were accustomed to Mrs. Strong’s blunt teachings, so there was less tittering that you might expect from a bunch of high school students. That being said, there was still some snickering at seeing the words written on the board by a teacher. That is until he turned around. The look silenced the whole room.
“Who can tell me what this poem is about?”
Silence. No one moved.
Mr. Black scanned the room of slouched teenagers. An executioner searching for a victim. His eyes found me trying to melt into my seat in the back of the room.
I suddenly found perfect posture.
“What do you think this poem is about?”
Through my terror of once again being a target, I found that words fell out of my mouth before I even knew I was talking. I don’t remember what I said exactly, but somehow I spewed out the basics of the poem. Somehow my brain was running overtime in the background while I was trying to melt away from sight, mulling the meaning. My subconscious was sussing out that Robert Graves was making an argument that while it was commonly believed that “naked” meant lewd and “nude” the socially acceptable term, it was actually “nude” which worked in darker places.
I spit out the answer before I even understood the words I spoke. Mr. Black had literally scared me into knowing the answer.
He raised an eyebrow at me in appreciation, “Very good.”
I sank back into my chair with an exhale to rival the president at the end of every apocalyptic action movie.
We spent the rest of the class period discussing each phrase and why the author chose the words he did. I was thankfully left alone for the rest of the time.
This is a moment in my life that has stuck with me. A moment Mr. Black probably doesn’t even remember. So why can’t I let it go? It wasn’t some major turning point in my life. I didn’t learn in that moment I was destined to write poetry or become a teacher. But it is burned into my memory.
Perhaps the reason is this, Mr. Black was an inspiration in my life. Maybe in some way he still is. Perhaps he got more out of me because he never expected less, never allowed less.
While many of the people who inspire me have proved to be kind and loving humans. There is a certain kind of inspirational person who has terrified me. As much respect as I may have for them, that respect includes a certain measure of fear. They have made me become better than I am, but they still scare the bejeezus out of me.
Now, I’m not talking about the kind of abusive, you-are-never-good-enough person who breaks you down with fear and holds you to expectations that are always just out of reach. I’m talking about the healthy, keep-you-on-your-toes angst that holds you accountable.
Mr. Black may have been terrifying and his expectations may have come with a certain amount of stress, but he did more than most of my teachers ever did. Not only did he teach me the lessons the school expected him to, he opened my mind to a new way of thinking. He taught me to expect more of myself and expand my view of the world.
So, thank you, Mr. Black, wherever you may be now. Thank you for being inspirational and slightly scary. (But, don’t expect me to ever like Ivanhoe.)