In 9th grade, my science teacher oozed dedication with every lesson plan. She pioneered the “flip the classroom” model of teaching. Every night, on her free time, she recorded 20-minute video lectures which we watched as homework and during class hours she had elaborate activities planned for us to do. We assembled 3D models of cell organelles, took field trips to the Planting Fields Arboretum and, for the nervous system unit, used clay and markers to reenact what happens on the microscopic level when a neuron fires.
My English teacher, Doc, took no such creative liberties. We read books, we talked about books and we wrote essays on books. Like his lesson plans, his wardrobe rarely diverged from a set formula. Every day he wore a turtleneck sweater, pleated tan khakis and laceless Merrell shoes. A six-foot, 70-something year old man with only a thin ring of snow-white hair on his head, he bellowed at the slightest interruption, which always exposed a bottom row of crooked teeth. The year before I took his class he refused to round up my cousin’s 89.5% average, gifting her her first and only B+ in her entire high school career. He was an avowed conservative and rumored to be a bit sexist. The day I found out I was in his English class, I begged my mom to call the school to see if I could be moved to another section. He notoriously assigned pop quizzes that consisted of writing a personal essay in-class on an unpredictable prompt.
Doc gave me a C+ on my first pop quiz. His prompt called on me to write about an idiosyncrasy I had. It also taught me what idiosyncrasy meant. “A distinctive, peculiar feature you have.” What made me distinctive? The first thing that popped in my brain was that I avoided eating green foods because I found raw vegetables gross. That was too mortifying to reveal. Then, I thought about how I was nerdy and liked Game of Thrones. Too general and cliché. What about that I’m smart and liked school subjects? I might as well have written that I was full of myself. The clock ticked. Five minutes passed. Then 10 minutes passed. I had to write something, anything. My palms got sweaty and I settled on the idea that I was “argumentative” because I liked to debate. Argumentative? My idiosyncrasy was that I was difficult? The essay was bad, and he told me it was bad. He was the first to tell me my work was bad. He was the first to tell me to take it back, work harder and turn it in again. I think I cried in the bathroom.
When I got home from school that day, I locked myself in my room and buried my face in my pillow. When I thought my eyes deserved light, I watched Friends reruns on TBS. And something in that room, the softness of my cotton blankets, the canned studio laughter coming from the TV, maybe the memory of the humiliation of Doc slapping the paper on my desk or his urging me to rewrite my piece to make it better, made my sadness turn to anger. And a bunch of my neurons fired. I vowed to glue my butt to a chair at the dinner table and write something prideworthy.
Doc was a rigid man but a romantic at his core. He had a wooden lectern in the middle of his classroom which he would lean on during class discussion. The entire room revolved around that podium, with the desks lined up in a semicircle with Doc’s pulpit in the center. The first book we studied was the Bible: the books of Genesis, Exodus and Matthew. In one particular class after listening to his students’ interpretation of the parable of the mustard seed, Doc straightened his back up from his podium.
“Doesn’t the Bible’s words feel enchanting and mystical?” he threw his arms in the air, “Its words are not cold and technical like science textbooks. Don’t you feel it?”
Doc hungered for hidden meanings in the inanimate world. He wanted magic to inhabit the air we breathed and the water we drank.
He liked my rewrite. He didn’t love it. He liked it. My fresh idiosyncrasy was “liking to read,” which I am now aware at the old age of 21, is also not an idiosyncrasy. But I had just spent the summer at sports camp, sleeping in wooden bunks with enough B.O. in the air to kill a skunk and with two arms covered from wrist to shoulder in bug bites. Sitting at the dining room table, writing my new essay, reflecting on what made me “me,” I started to smell the sap of pine needles I plucked from the ground while sitting on ice-cold bleachers, the last one to be picked for every team sport. I felt the scratch of the bark of oak trees I leaned up against while sitting alone reading. I felt the peace of reading alone at camp. I like to think these sensations seeped into the rewrite. I like to think that’s why Doc liked it.
I was not on the receiving end of Doc’s worst outbursts. I don’t know of many others who felt as shaped by Doc as I do. I know some who think of him with pure bitterness, and I suspect I saw but didn’t process much of his unequal treatment. I can’t say whether he did more good in his classrooms than harm. I just know that when I found out Doc died of pancreatic cancer last fall, I felt like crying.
JACOB HUTT is a junior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .