Opinion
Education Opinion

Epitaph for an English Teacher

By Howard Good — October 18, 2000 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

BRIC ARCHIVE

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.”

Every student possesses the ability to excel at something worthwhile, whether drawing, science, or friendship.

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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP