Almost three years ago – or back in "the mists of antiquity," as English Teacher Dave might say – I wrote this overview of my K-12 teachers
. I had a lot of fond memories from school. I wasn't always the most eager student, but I loved most of my teachers, connected with them in ways I often could not connect with my peers.
English Teacher Dave and I remain good friends to this day. I was just relaying to some friends this weekend that I would never have been prepared for my first college English course if it hadn't been for him. He was tough as a teacher, but his efforts prepared me well and the fact that we're still friends reveals that his whip-cracking didn't leave any permanent scars. Quite the contrary: I respected him even more for demanding more from me. That's my perspective nearly 22 years hence, anyway. At the time, he often pissed me off.
I'm still in touch with some college teachers and professors, too. And those who may not be part of my social circle today still traipse through my mind. I often think of Eugene Wildman rushing across campus on his way to University Hall, stopping to interrupt a conversation I was having with another teacher to ask me, very abruptly, "What's the mother's motivation?"
Oh, the mother. In my story. For his fiction-writing class. Um, ah, um ...
"You have to know!" he said, and hurried off.
Or Gerry Sorensen, one of the deans of the college of Liberal Arts and Sciences, asking me at residual registration, "Why are you here?"
"To register for classes."
"No, I mean, why are you here
?" he asked. "Why didn't you do this months ago?"
"Because I just got accepted on Friday?"
The not-so-short version of how I did not become a doctor is here
, including anecdotes about both high school and college instructors alike.
But there are some who have not gotten their due.
Rob Nerius was and is a good friend. His parting words to me in my senior yearbook were "Get obsessed and stay obsessed." We don't see each other as often as I'd like, but we keep up with each other's lives through our blogs and e-mails and Christmas letters. I was more of a behind-the-scenes person in my high school theater program, more likely to show up early on a Saturday morning to help build sets than I was to audition for a part in a play (though I did that, too). I remember well sitting on stage with Rob, early on Saturday mornings, talking about whatever it is we talked about until other people began to arrive.
Those chats were some of the best moments I had in high school. And when my cousin Betty died suddenly my senior year and the emotion of it all came crashing down on me the last day of school before Christmas break, he didn't say a word. He just put his arm around me while I cried. Years later, in English Teacher Dave's kitchen, I thanked him for that gesture. It was one of those moments of pure humanity that I'll never forget.
Jan Benjamin recruited me to join the speech team as the up-and-coming radio speaker to assume the mantle from Sheri, I believe (or was it Sherri?), who was exceptional but who was graduating. Jan dubbed me "Golden Tones" and showed me the ropes. My radio-speaking career was uneven at best, but I did make it to state my senior year and I have him to thank for planting the radio bug in my ear. I went on to do a little radio when I worked at the Tribune
and I miss it today. Then again, there's always a podcast.
Rob Moore (and his collection of very cool ties) taught my only official journalism class. (I also took a writing class taught by a guest lecturer/editor from the Tribune
, Charles Leroux.) Rob kindly gave me an A. (Which I may have actually earned, I suppose.)
Nancy Cirillo left a class of hers in my hands for a day. Teaching is a lot harder than it looks.
And then there was Preston Browning. I adored Professor Browning with his genteel Southern way and his political stances that were anything but. He was by no means an easy teacher, but he was exceedingly fair. I wrote a paper about Hemingway that deviated far from the assigned topic, but he graded it on its merits and not only gave it an A but asked for a copy of it for his files. Yikes!
Every year, he'd invite a group of students to his apartment for dinner. Later, when he retired, I was honored to be invited to the lovely home he shared with his wife in Hyde Park. Nancy encouraged me get up in front of the gathered family and friends and say a few words. I told her I wouldn't be able to get through what I'd want to say. But someone invited all of Preston's students to come up and say a few words, so I let one of my peers speak for me, for us. Preston greeted each member of the group, arriving at me last. I didn't have anything prepared, but found myself saying, "I love you." He smiled and said, "I love you, too. And I'm so glad you're here."
Over the years, I've thought about him and his wife, Ann. Wondering where they were, what they were doing. On Sunday, I was on Amazon, looking to replace a copy of my Hemingway biography that I loaned to a friend years ago and once again thought of Preston and my paper.
Today, for kicks, I plugged his name into Facebook. I didn't find him there, but I did Google him and found that he and Ann are running an artists and writers retreat
in Massachusetts, which suits Preston to a T.
I dropped a line his way, to say hello, to let him know that in my post-collegiate life, I've cobbled together a living with words.
He hasn't changed a lick in 20 years. He's still the same adorable man I remember.
I'm so grateful to have had him in my life. And the same goes for so many of my instructors over the years. We're the sum of our experiences and these people have made me rich in ways I cannot measure.
I hope you had at least one teacher who made a lasting impact in your life.