The High School Teacher Who Changed Kaveh Akbar’s Life
Meet Steve Henn, Who Goes Above and Beyond for Students
The era of constant assessment can turn the English classroom into a utilitarian space—driven by rubrics and data. Young aspiring writers are often left without a place to grow; their methods and styles seen as flighty fragments of misunderstanding. An educational culture that doesn’t support these students—the kids who live through words and stories—will suffer.
Steve Henn is the type of teacher that young writers need.
He’s just the right mix of idealist and realist—a duality that comes from years of working in the classroom. “People say you have to love kids to do this,” Henn tells me. “You have to get along with kids. You don’t have to love them all the time. They might drive you nuts sometimes. You might hope for much more than you get from them. They might be disappointed in what you have to offer, too. These experiences are frequent and normal.”
English teachers of all levels need to be reminded of these truths. Henn thinks the key is modeling for English students “that you can spend a life steeped in books and that you’re thankful for it, that you’re happy and even relieved, in some ways, to have the skill you have with language and the consolation of letting books, reading, and (maybe even) writing be a large and necessary part of your life.”
Henn teaches in northeastern Indiana at Warsaw Community High School, which he graduated from in 1994. Henn “was very happy that my favorite English teacher, Mr. Jack Musgrave, was still teaching for the first two years of my career—I respect and admire and in some ways try to emulate him by being my authentic self with students.” At Warsaw, the “academic and the vocational mix. We have welding, engineering, and working at the school restaurant, the Blue Apron. We also have AP English, lots of dual credit, Calculus A, B, and C.” Students come from Warsaw and other surrounding towns in Kosciusko County: Leesburg, Claypool, Atwood, Silver Lake.
Henn has always been driven by a love of books. In high school, he was drawn to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Richard Brautigan, and Kurt Vonnegut. In college, at Indiana University South Bend, he loved Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, and complete an independent study on Silko alongside Faulkner and Hemingway. Henn met Don Winter there, and they later created and edited the poetry magazine Fight These Bastards. Henn has since been drawn to poets like Bob Hicok, Ross Gay, Mary Ruefle, Larry Levis, Gerald Stern, James Tate, Heather Christle, Hanif Abdurraqib, Russell Edson, Natalie Diaz, Eduardo Corral, Maxine Kumin, Toi Derricotte, Dan Crocker, and Oren Wagner. Henn is a poet himself, with a few books under his belt, including And God Said: Let there be Evolution!. His chapbook, Guilty Prayer, is coming next year from Main Street Rag Publishing.
“If I’m successfully connecting with students,” Henn says, “it’s mainly through an interest in writing or music. I have a record player in my room and bring in my own vinyl.” His students don’t always like So Far by Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young as much as he does, but he especially connects with the budding writers. Kids get into Why Write? by Mark Edmundson—“It is truly the best combination of truth, honesty, and insight in a book about writing that I have ever encountered…Some of them get to thinking of themselves as writers in a deeper way than they did before, thanks to the influence of that book.”
Of course, that’s the secret: getting kids to consider that they can, and should, write. Henn has mentored his own share of writers over the years, and I spoke with one of them. Kaveh Akbar, the gifted poet who was recently named poetry editor for The Nation, was one of Henn’s students at WCHS.
“There’s no way I can, with words, give Steve Henn enough credit for all he’s done for me,” Akbar says. “He read and responded generously to literally hundreds of drafts of my earliest poems, off the clock, when it could do him absolutely no good. He gave me book after book of poetry, talked to me about them like what I had to say really mattered. He shared his own good work with me and asked me my opinions like his peer, long before I was.” Akbar tells me that “Steve treating me like a real poet made me one. Everything I’ve done and do owes a profound debt of gratitude to his early kindnesses.”
Teachers know that to hear such words from a former student is an absolute gift. Henn remembers giving Akbar those texts—“mostly small press, copyshop, fold-and-staple kinds of magazines that you submitted to and received in the mail.” Years later, when Akbar started Divedapper, his interview site, Henn followed the conversations between poets, and learned. “The point is, Kaveh completely went beyond anything I could do for him as a mentor, and started doing things online that I could be a student of. It was very useful and I thank him for it.” More often than teachers realize, our students head into the wider world carrying moments of us with them. We give of ourselves so much in the classroom, but we should never forget—especially during the challenging days—that such work is worth it.