The High School English Teacher Who Changed My Life
Twelve Writers Reflect on the Teachers Who First Inspired Them
Flannery O’Connor once mocked how literature was taught in high schools: “When I went to school I observed a number of ways in which the industrious teacher of English could ignore the nature of literature, but continue to teach the subject.” “Astute and energetic” teachers” could “integrate English literature with geography, biology, home economics, basketball, or fire prevention—with anything at all that will put off a little longer the evil day when the story or novel must be examined as a story or novel.”
Sensitive teachers should not be wounded by O’Connor’s words. Her sarcasm was rooted in a respect for real art, and a lament for the state of education. After all, if “it is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind,” then we should teach the best literature we can find—and “if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.”
For the past decade, The New Yorker’s poetry editor, Paul Muldoon, has taught a summer poetry course for high school teachers at the Bread Loaf School of English. He considers it his “duty,” since if “physics, or physical education, were taught at the pitch at which I fear poetry is taught in most high schools, there would be a public outcry.” Muldoon’s hope is that these teachers “might engender in their own students some sense of the power of poetry.”
I am sure that Mr. Muldoon’s class is wonderful. But I think he and other critical minds miss the careful, caring, even expert work happening in thousands of classrooms around this country. I learned to love literature and story at Whippany Park High School. Richard Lamb was my first creative writing teacher. The course was called “The Art of Writing.” He earned an MA in English Literature from NYU, and had the forearms of a linebacker. He let us write the strangest stories we could muster. One of my stories was about a man who peppered the sidewalk with pennies. He read my stories as if they were better than they were. It was all the encouragement I needed.
When I contacted writers about their most formative literary experiences in high school, I received a few bad memories. Some writers were even scarred by those cold and authoritarian teachers. I feel for them, and have tried, during my own decade as a public school English teacher, to do a bit of collective penance for those wronged by the system. Yet I was pleased to learn that most writers I contacted had been influenced—even transformed—by their high school English teachers. Here are their stories.
Wally Rudolph, author of Mighty, Mighty
After being summarily kicked out of my senior year advanced placement English class after all of two days for refusing to do several thousand grammar exercises as a get-to-know-me assignment by Ms. Fried Blonde Hair From the East Coast, I found myself under the tutelage of the gifted and loving Ms. Zita Prater, a wonderful teacher of twelfth-grade English Composition. And although my memories of high school are one long colorful acid-induced blur complete with hallucinations of dolphins swimming the aqua blue linoleum halls of the godforsaken racist-ass high school I attended in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, and I am not able to provide a synopsis of the actual curriculum and reading that Ms. Prater taught and assigned, I do remember a lively in-class discussion of The Iliad led with genuine joy and excitement for the source material by Ms. Prater.
Near the end of the school year—my final days in high school—as I tumbled and peaked, continuing my self-education in the Yaqui way of knowledge from my seat in the back row, I remember realizing that Ms. Prater was an unapologetically good person not filled with a hair of judgment. That realization was followed by a thick stab of guilt-induced nausea because she did not know me by real name but called me “Todd” because on my first day in her class—high on dirt weed and drunk on stolen white rum—I’d asked her to call me “Todd,” and Ms. Prater, being who she is, didn’t second guess, scorn, or insist on me being called by the name on my registration forms. Instead, she honored my inane, smart-ass request and respected and treated me as an individual and a nearly-fully-formed person (even though I was far from it).
Isn’t that what we all wanted back then?
Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Quiet Dell
I was 15, attending Buckhannon-Upshur High School in my hometown. The school was overcrowded and our English class took place in a metal outbuilding set up beside the athletic field. My “student teacher,” Irene McKinney, was finishing her degree in Education at West Virginia Wesleyan. We wrote weekly compositions which she returned with thoughtful comments.
One day after class I stayed behind to retrieve my latest composition; I believe the composition was about the ocean (which I’d seen on family vacations to Myrtle Beach). We triple folded our three-page “papers” to conceal any hanging shreds from our notebooks and inscribed them with name and date. Irene returned my composition as we stood by her desk in the empty room. She was never overly personal, but she looked me in the eye and said, “People are going to try to bury you, but you mustn’t let them.” I think I nodded. I don’t remember replying, but I knew exactly what she meant.
No one at the school knew she was a poet, and she never mentioned it. The next year, Irene would publish her first book, The Girl With the Stone In Her Lap, a tough, gorgeous book. I met her again years later, at WVU in Morgantown, and read everything she’d written. She became a mentor and lifelong friend. Her books, Quick Fire and Slow Fire (’88), Six O’Clock Mine Report (’89), Vivid Companion (’04), the amazing Unthinkable, Selected Poems (’09) and Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet? No, I Haven’t Had Enough Darkness (2013, published after her death) are revelatory.
She earned her Ph.D in Salt Lake City and taught in various colleges, but lived most of her life in a house she built on the family farm near Phillipi, WV. Her life was isolated, partly by choice, but her work has yet to reach the wide readership that her poems deserve. She is the equal of geniuses like Lorine Niedecker, C.D. Wright, and Louise Gluck, and belongs in their pantheon. Irene McKinney died after a long battle with cancer, on February 4th, 2012, in her own bed. Four of us (her daughter, and three close friends) were with her.
Brenda Shaughnessy, author of Our Andromeda
I had a magnificent English teacher, Marcine Solarez, who was also my public speaking teacher, and it’s because of her I became a writer. I had forgotten that was the case for many, many years, and then I remembered, suddenly, the moment I knew I wanted to be a writer: it was on a speech tournament trip to Berkeley. She left her three young kids at home with her spouse to take a bunch of high schoolers on a bus to compete for three days, and I was there with my original poetry/prose piece. She was the first and only person I knew who knew what literary journals were; because she told me, when I was 16, that the best places to publish were The New Yorker and The Paris Review, it became cemented in my mind that these would be my writerly goals. The Paris Review wound up being one of my very first publications. (We got back in touch a few years ago—she was my teacher 1986-87!—because she read a poem of mine in The New Yorker!)
So she was much more than just a rad English teacher and a devoted speech/debate coach. She gave me permission to write my creative pieces, and gave me my first glimpse of what the writing world even was; and she was a tough coach! I stuttered when I first started speech class with her. She gave me confidence, and made me feel that my voice could and should be heard. It changed me.
Alice Elliott Dark, author of Think of England
Mrs. Reilly was a bluestocking, a lady intellectual who channeled her brilliance into teaching girls how to read and write. She didn’t try to relate to her pupils except through work; no hanging out or sharing for her. Yet she had a sense of humor that enlivened Milton and all the creaky poets, and powers of observation that acted as a periscope. She peered beyond the classroom at how her students were conceiving of their futures and, like a shepherd, gathered her flocks toward the higher ground of including a life of the mind in our plans. I rebelled against her egregiously, taking every writing assignment as a dare to interpret it on my own terms. For example, when asked to write a biography of a famous person, I invented a scientist and supported my paper with phony references. As always, Mrs. Reilly hunted me down after the stunt, that time finding me in the library. “An excellent piece of fiction,” she said. “Now do it my way.” I wrote two pieces for every one she assigned, and got smarter in lots of ways. She was strict, but flexibly so. That still seems to me like a species of genius.
Michele Somerville, author of Black Irish
I was the daughter of a cop and a secretary, attending a prep school on a scholarship in 1974, very much under protest, when I began to study English with Jane Bendetson, a brilliant teacher. Now deceased, she was somewhat legendary in NYC private school circles.
She was sophisticated, very well read and had a regal but theatrical demeanor. I was afraid of her when first I took a seat in her class. She seemed an intellectual powerhouse, ran things like a college professor. One day she began to wax prosaic about a drawing she had seen hanging on another floor, a charcoal rendering of Aristotle. She went on and on about the artist’s talent, then identified the artist: me. I was mortified.
On the way out she gave me a two-sentence speech about how the drawing and writing were connected. Shortly after that, she gave me one of those, “You know you’re a writer, don’t you?” talks. I think it was hearing her read “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock” that incited me to begin a life-long habit of reading and trying to write poetry every day. In junior year I later studied classical literature with her. During senior year, I took her Bible as Literature class. I read The Inferno on my own that year and some almost 40 years after studying with Mrs. Bendetson, I still crack open my Greek Lexicon to translate a little Sappho and write about faith, God, religion and belief. I can easily trace all my precious writing fetishes back to her.
She was a rigorous and loving teacher and thinker. She wrote some great essays for The New York Times. I remember she loved the Bhagavad Gita, had studied in the Iowa Playwrights workshop with Tennessee Williams and gave some kind of writing diagnostic/Rorschach prompt whereby she asked the students to write something from the point of view of a person tied to a chair in a dark room with rats nibbling at their feet. She later told me it had been some tool for understanding the times. I was a kid with cardboard in her shoes going to school with kids with Gucci boots. She made me feel smart and talented. I happen to take great joy in my work in both my capacities as writer and teacher. I credit her.
Valerie Nieman, author of Blood Clay
Marcia Lawson, high school English teacher, had just enough rebel in her soul to encourage it in her students. I remember one of her texts—Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle—poems chosen for their tart snap. Ezra Pound, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and contemporary poets of less fame. A child of farm country and the classics, I’d been writing poetry since the sixth grade, in rhyme and meter. Miss Lawson kicked open all the doors and windows. It was a time of “limitless bites/Of hungers quickly felt,” as John Tobias wrote in the title poem. Those hungers were not, however, “quickly forgotten.”
Mark Wisniewski, author of Watch Me Go
An English instructor, Father Crowley, S.J., seemed to sense my rebelliousness (I very much disliked classes), and despite it—maybe because of it?—asked me to write a short story for the school’s literary magazine. This struck me as a big deal, because I was a junior and the magazine tended to publish seniors only, and the very brightest ones at that. So I wrote a story for him, and it not only flowed faster than anything I’d written, it was something I cared about enough that I revised it painstakingly. I can’t say now that it was a stunningly accomplished story, but I can say that this otherwise gruff teacher of mine published it—and that from then on, I knew I wanted to write fiction.
Gary Fincke, author of Bringing Back the Bones
Somewhere among grammar exercises, book reports, and the long slog of skimming Silas Marner, Miss Price, my tenth grade English teacher, asked our class to write a short story. For once, there weren’t rules to follow and points to be deducted for errors. All she wanted, she said, was for us to be creative for at least three pages.
I wrote twelve. I finished days before the assignment was due. The story was modeled after The Twilight Zone, my favorite television show, and I made sure it had an ironic twist at the end. Nobody else managed more than four pages. Miss Price wrote, “Wow, this is something” after my last paragraph. And though I didn’t write another story for five years, I knew this was something, all right. Not the A I received, but the joy of doing the work, not because I had to, but because I wanted to.
Carrie Murphy, author of Fat Daisies
My high school English and Creative Writing teacher, Bill Jones (who taught me for three years at Towson High School in Towson, MD), was such a hugely positive force in my development as a writer. Teenage girls—and their concerns, be it romance or angst or the music they’re listening to—are so often dismissed and disrespected in our culture, thought of as silly and shallow, inconsequential. But I never felt that way as a teenage poet with Mr. Jones. He always made me feel as if what I had to say in my poetry was significant, important, insightful and meaningful. I remember once, after I’d turned-in some new work, he stopped my friend in the hall before class and said “Have you read Carrie’s new poem? It’s hot!” His respect for and belief in me, my work, and my creative process, gave me so much confidence, such a strong and deep foundation on which to grow and change and experiment and fail and fly.
Hannah Stephenson, author of In the Kettle, the Shriek
By my senior year of high school, I’d soundly discovered that I liked poetry. One of my English teachers, Joe Hecker, saw how much I geeked out over it, and offered me an independent study in poetry. We met once a week, going through the Contemporary American Poetry anthology, poet by poet. Mr. Hecker would recommend poets to me, I’d read their selections, and we’d discuss them. I vividly recall reading John Berryman for the first time, and feeling like my brain was melting out of my ears, in the most pleasant way imaginable. Through that independent study, I encountered Lucille Clifton, Robert Creeley, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hass (all of the Roberts, apparently)… so many poets that I still adore. I also brought my own writing in for discussion and feedback. Later that year, as a direct result of that independent study, I helped to edit and establish the school’s literary magazine. I’m so thankful to Joe Hecker for his generosity, and for validating the act of reading poetry for pleasure. That was one of the first times that someone outside of my family recognized my love of poetry, and let me know that it was a good thing to take it seriously.
Kerrin McCadden, author of Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes
I remember that the two English teachers who influenced me most during high school often seemed entranced. I watched them go inward as they taught—like they knew a secret world. They would straighten up as they recited or read aloud to us. They would sometimes roll their eyes back a little, while thinking, and to a teenager, this was just weird—but I knew, even though I blanched a little, that they were accessing a kind of thinking that seemed close to magic. There was the time Warren Brown drew the classic iceberg on the blackboard and told us that Lord of the Flies was only superficially about boys on an island, that really it was about the massive amount of uncharted blackboard ice under the blackboard water. What stuck with me was that literature is a definitively knowable entity, but, also, guessable—bigger than the sum of its words, thus essentially incalculable. Mr. Brown also made me memorize the last stanza of “Dover Beach,” and I still know it, or most of it. That one sentence stanza is a syntactic cornerstone for me. It’s a gorgeous sentence, and many times I’ve seen myself write sentences that remind me of it.
And when I was a little bit older, Mr. Mechem, topped by a shock of Trump-like hair, would get so animated that I couldn’t look away. Once, it was about Frost’s gold that can’t stay, and his eyes caught a kind of fire, trying to get us to see what he meant by this “gold,” and he just yelled “LOOK!” We looked out the window into clouds of nature’s “first green.” That collision of literature with the real world is an indelible memory. It’s a little thing, but it’s part and parcel with how I received anything he’d teach—from weeks of grammar lessons, to sentence variety drills, to the enforced use of the three word sentence and templates we had to fill in order to grow more muscular sentences.
Mr. Mechem’s passion for literature and his belief in me as a writer—giving me C after C until I stepped up—helped me to know that this work matters. When I started going off on my own as a literary reader, I knew how to read what I chose, and, most importantly, I had an idea about how to write what I needed to write. I began writing poetry during those years, and though I did it badly, and in secret, I knew what poetry was for, and I knew how to flex my syntax and diction muscles, and I knew how to roll my eyes back into my head to find what was, inexplicably, there. It took many, many years to figure out how to write poems that anyone else might want to read, but these two exacting, impassioned teachers made me know that when I was writing, I was thinking, and that when I was writing, the world seemed more, and less, ineffable. I’ve never gotten over my love for that confusion.
Joseph Salvatore, author of To Assume a Pleasing Shape
I was in high school in the 80s, and in my sophomore year for English class I had a new teacher, a guy in his late-thirties, a little over six feet tall, slender but strong-looking in his blazer and dress shirt and tie, wavy dark hair parted on the side and still a little bit in the style of the 70s, it seemed to me, like Al Pacino’s Serpico. He wore glasses that he kept low on his nose and peered over when he spoke. His name was not Mr. Ambrosino, but that’s close enough. Mr. Ambrosino, I need to make clear, was no John Keating, no Mr. Holland. He was what we called in those days “strict.” He was less interested in our being epiphanically transformed by our readings as he was in our being able to engage with them in speech and in writing. He checked homework, he was a hard grader. His passion was something he seemed almost to try to hide. But it finally revealed itself one day, and it was that day that changed everything for me.
First a bit about his methodology. He’d often sit on the edge of his big teacher desk, reading to us from a text, his dark blue or gray blazer hanging on the back of his chair, his white shirt sleeves rolled up, his tie never something he needed to loosen. He’d stop his reading often to encourage us to “think aloud” and share ideas, assuring us that we were building readings and that we needed as many ideas in the air (as he used to put it) as possible in order to do that. (It’s an approach I use now in my own classroom.) His “strictness” felt like a strange counterbalance to this invitation. I had never before been exposed to this idea of “multiple readings.” I’d gone to a Catholic school since kindergarten, and there the good Carmelite sisters (some who seemed as old as my grandmother!) weren’t interested in arguments about alternative interpretations. And although this was a Catholic high school, Ambrosino not only encouraged such alternative arguments, he taught us how. He taught us that constructing them included not only coming up with ideas but then supporting them with evidence from the text, just like lawyers did in a courtroom. Did Gatsby really love Daisy? Prove it. Did Huck really love Jim? Prove it. But wait, how are you defining “love”? Perhaps we’d better be clear about the terms we’re using. Okay, now, that we’ve defined our terms, why don’t you read aloud those passages you claim support your argument.
This all had the effect on me of being transformative when I didn’t really even know what it meant. I enjoyed finally being able to have and express opinions about stuff I was learning in school.
Then came poetry. Now we were learning even more surgical ways to use evidence: explication! Close textual analysis! Okay, okay, this may be starting to sound a little less-than-dramatic, let alone “epiphanic”; and for some of us, on certain days, I suppose it may have been. But it was during our poetry unit when Ambrosino taught us—well, taught me, at least—more than how to read and write.
It was before lunch, and Ambrosino was sitting on the edge of his desk, his feet resting on the seat of his chair. We were reading William Carlos Williams’ plum poem. (That’s what we called it.) It was so short that he had every one of us read the poem aloud. Then he asked us to discuss it. Did we have something we enjoyed as much as the poet enjoyed those plums? Did we feel the need to express that pleasure in fancy poetry or was a plain style enough to express those feelings? Our homework that night was to write as simple a poem as possible in praise of something we loved as much as the poet loved his plums. Someone, I forget who, it might have been one of the young women who later confessed to having a crush on him, asked Ambrosino if he himself had such an object of affection. He set the poem aside and leaned over, elbows on thighs, and folded his hands, and said yes, he had one. He told us how, as a boy, he had to work on his father’s farm, a drudgery he resented but had no choice in doing. He often heard his friends riding their bikes past the farm, laughing, yelling. One day, toward the end of summer, he told us, when the sun was scorching and the skin on his shoulders near blistering, his father had ended the day a few minutes early and left Ambrosino to close up shop. Having finished his work, Ambrosino made his way alone slowly through the tomato vines hanging off the same trellises his father had used to grow his grapes. His eyes blurry with sweat, his t-shirt over his head for protection, he looked up at a big, beefy tomato hanging above his head. He said it was eclipsing the sun behind it. I remember he used that word. The tomato, he said, was glorious. He dropped his t-shirt and reached for the tomato. Holding its weight in his hands, he lifted it to his mouth and bit it, he said, like an apple. He tried to describe what he said was the indescribable juiciness, its taste and its texture, and just how utterly thirst-quenching it was. That tomato, he told us, helped him that day beyond the physical; it helped him, he said, somehow endure what work he had to do on his father’s farm. The memory of that tomato stayed with him to that day, he said. But he wouldn’t say more.
Later that week, we were in Mr. Ambrosino’s English class again, continuing with our poetry unit, discussing Dante’s terza rima and how the only way out of the inferno was through purgatorio, when a knock came at the door. The gym teacher, Mr. Reilly, a short, stocky blond fire hydrant of a man, tiptoed politely in along with the history teacher, Mr. Brady, a bald fire hydrant. They both wore matching black and red nylon athletic-wear. Brady stood against the wall with his arms crossed, and Reilly approached Ambrosino, asking if we were still “doing poetry.” Ambrosino put the book down, took his glasses off, and folded his own arms. He smiled at Reilly, but said nothing. Reilly said he wanted to share a poem, if he could, that he had found in the school’s library. The poem was from a volume of verse, he said, written by John C. Ambrosino. He said the name of the volume in a way that I can only describe as the kind of sarcasm that a gym teacher would affect reading a poem he had great contempt for. The poem was about a walk being taken by two lovers through a small village; and it was expressed in the same careful, controlled but evocative language that Ambrosino had used to describe his encounter with that tomato. Reilly read it with increasing affect, raising his voice to a near-feminine pitch and faintly lisping, clearly wanting us to laugh at Ambrosino. None of us did. And it was not for fear of our strict teacher’s reprimand. It was because we loved him. As much as it could be said and properly understood that a group of students could love a teacher, we loved Ambrosino. Brady stood smirking the entire time, but it became difficult to tell if it was at Reilly’s attempt to humiliate Ambrosino or if it was at Reilly’s obvious failure to do so. When the poem was done Reilly did a slight curtsy, never breaking character, I’ll give him that, and then thanked us for our time. He left, with Brady closing the door behind them. Ambrosino smirked and shook his head, returned his glasses to the bridge of his nose, and returned to the text. We erupted and all he would say was that poetry was a hobby he picked up in college and that he’d won a contest that gave publication of a book as its prize.
A few months later, there was an exhibition game in our high school’s new shiny and reverberating gymnasium between the boy’s varsity basketball team and the older faculty, who tried to show off their skills despite their age and conditioning. I sat in the bleachers and cheered as Ambrosino, lithe and graceful and fierce, a red bandana around his head, scored more points that day than either Reilly or Brady.