Epitaph for an English Teacher
He wasn't the most brilliant or stimulating teacher I ever had, just the most influential. His name was Harry Thompson. He taught me Advanced Placement English in 12th grade at John F. Kennedy High School—a class that, strictly speaking, I wasn't prepared for and shouldn't have been allowed to take. That was more than 30 years ago, but I still remember Mr. Thompson with a kind of awe.
Why? It isn't because he was physically impressive. He was a little pear- shaped man with a prematurely bald head that made him look a lot older than he was—only 37 at the time, if my math is correct. And it isn't because he was a flamboyant showman who entertained us with anecdotes and impersonations as he taught. His classroom style was actually rather drab. No, I remember him for the simple reason that he was sympathetic and encouraging to me when so many other teachers would have been the exact opposite.
I ended up in Advanced Placement English not because of my grades, which were mediocre at best, but because of my big mouth. The class had previously been confined to outstanding students who had followed an accelerated academic track since junior high. Average students like me were exiled to slower, lower-level English classes. I argued that this was elitist. During the political and social turmoil of the late '60s, the argument must have carried a certain weight. The English department let me in.
This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.
And, almost immediately, I imploded. Although I harbored ambitions of one day becoming a professional writer, with my name on book covers and idolatrous readers at my feet, I hadn't yet mastered the basics of writing a critical essay. On the first major assignment—a paper on Arthur Miller's play "Death of a Salesman"—I got an ominous "See me" scrawled in red across the top. While the rest of the class trooped off to 5th period lunch, I stayed behind. Sitting on the corner of his desk, Mr. Thompson dissected my paper with harrowing precision, pointing out lapses in interpretation, documentation, and even hyphenation. He suggested that perhaps I hadn't put enough effort into the assignment. The truth was worse. I had worked long and hard on the paper. It wasn't lack of effort, but sheer ineptitude that accounted for all the mistakes. As he went on reciting my paper's shortcomings, I began to cry tears of frustration and shame.
I had had some teachers earlier in my school career that would have turned cruelly sarcastic at that moment. I had had others who would have remained indifferent. Not Mr. Thompson. He stopped in midsentence, the expression on his face alternating between surprise and concern. He didn't know me well. He didn't know about my literary ambitions. But he made it his business to find out. He became the first adult, beside my parents, to ever show any real interest in me. Over the next year, I brought him my awful poems, and he lent me good books. He encouraged my writing, nurtured my imagination, and protected my dreams. I was just an average student, but he gave me the confidence to be more.
Mr. Thompson can be an inspiring example to all of us who are responsible in one way or another for educating the young—school board members, administrators, faculty, and staff. The educational community gives regular lip service to the notion that "every child can learn."
It is time—in fact, long past time—to finally put this notion into practice. Mr. Thompson demonstrated how.
First, be sympathetic to those in your keeping. You may have become accustomed to the sight of youngsters struggling with the rigors of growing up, but this is the first time through for them.
Second, never assume that a student is just average. Every student possesses the ability to excel at something worthwhile, whether drawing, science, or friendship. Third, grades count, but sincerity of effort counts, too. Fourth and last, the opportunity to teach is ever present—seize it as often as you can.
Harry Thompson died this past summer of a heart attack. His body lay unclaimed in the hospital for several days. He had never married. He had no children. His only surviving relative was an older brother who was sick himself and couldn't get there right away.
But before you decide that Mr. Thompson suffered a tragic end, there is something else you should know. The week he died, he received as a gift a copy of my newest book. I might never have written it or any of my five previous books if he hadn't gathered me up all those years ago. He made a positive difference in at least one child's life. So can you.
Vol. 20, Issue 7, Page 38Published in Print: October 18, 2000, as Epitaph for an English Teacher