At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Friday, April 19, 2013

My Greatest Teachers: Those Who Inspire

The week is almost over, and so is my running tribute to the greatest classroom teachers in my life (I could include my parents in the "Greatest Teachers" circle, but that goes without saying and besides, I'm talking about the literal classroom). Now you've likely noticed that--despite the variety in names and places--there has been a common thread amongst the teachers I've lauded thus far: (1) They tend to swim in the history/theology pool and (2) they are all males.

And so on this final day of this series, it stands to reason we shatter that trend with literature and writing from the soul of a lady.

In the summer of 1984--months before Bryan Adams would reacquaint us with the summer of '69--we moved from the Deep South, from Jackson, Mississippi, a territory that was the breeding ground for The Help. Leaving seminary teaching behind, my father was called as a pastor to a small Presbyterian church in Westminster, Maryland. After several years of private school, I was heading into public education for the first time since third grade. Westminster High School awaited me and my Southern accent, a speech warble which went with my persona like integrity went with Agnew and Nixon and an idiosyncrasy I would ditch quickly. I was playing football again and was locked and loaded for my ninth grade year.

The school day was a whirlwind through the hallways of a student body twenty three hundred strong. Latin blurred into woodshop which turned to PE, and then it was Algebra I, lunch in a zoo of a cafeteria. The afternoon took me to Physical Science and a government class before I arrived in last period, a class which ended up cranking my tractor like no other.

English I. Mrs. Deborah Harbaugh. Hereafter known as "the Queen of Awesomeness."

Since my high school days, she has moved across town to the (relatively) new Winters Mill High School, is now known as Deb Clarke, and has banked nearly forty years in the Carroll County Public Schools. Although much has changed, she is still teaching, is still admired, and still runs at a ferocious level--a dozen full marathons overall and still doing two to three half-marathons per year.

But I digress. And whatever surname she might have, she'll be known as Deb.

Deb knew how to inspire and excite us, whether discussing Great Expectations (which I had always felt was the greatest example of titular false advertising in the world, but she made it palatable), having us act out Romeo and Juliet, or playing "Jeopardy" for a review game before our tests. No day was ever drab; there was a perpetual pulse of energy running through her classroom.

To be honest, I zipped through the initial weeks of English I with a fairly confident attitude--in truth, one that bordered on "internally cocky". We took a diagnostic test the first week of school which I was oddly ready for; it was on matters like parts of speech, verb tenses, and the like. Since my previous five years of private school had force-fed me a steady diet of grammar and diagramming of sentences, I nailed it. As we went over the test, she was pleasantly surprised I knew what a gerund was (Steve Coco, who sat in front of me, turned around and looked as if I had whipped up a plutonium bomb with dry wall and toothpaste).

While September was a good beginning, I soon found October through February to be an almighty trial. One problem was that I was twitchy and couldn't sit still--an issue that seemed to plague me in almost every English class in high school. Deb was undeniably patient with me when I should have been diagnosed ADD. But the supreme act of consistent force came whenever we had to write an essay. Now, I had written book reports and two-page "research papers" before, but for whatever reason, my prior years had been fairly lean on honing any writer's craft, and Deb's approach hit my freshman brain with the power of a Stokes mortar bomb in World War I.

For much of the year, I experienced a slalom of anxiety and thrill. I discovered that I enjoyed the process of writing. To me, it felt (and still feels) like painting a picture and shaping a jigsaw puzzle at the same time--creating a work of art while at the same moment discerning how you can make it fit together even better. Given my lack of time in that area, I was playing catch-up, and hence the anxiety. But I loved using vivid imagery, descriptive words, metaphors and similes. I found writing could say what I found difficult to tell people face to face. Twenty-eight years later, little has changed about me.

But it was still a struggle. And it came to a head one day in February 1985. We had turned in our final drafts of a compare-contrast essay, and Deb had finished grading them. To this day, I have no idea what the topic was. I don't know if I didn't take the time to do it right or just had a bad attitude. All I know is my final product was lower quality than whale slobber that sits at the bottom of the ocean. Deb would always read two essays before she handed everything back to us; one essay would be for commendation, and one would be for critique. She never mentioned whose essays she was reading; she was respectful of our privacy. But guess whose essay she read as an example of something that really needed serious literary surgery? Yep. And then the killer: She said to everyone, "Now that is one student whom I know can do much better."

And those were the exact words on my paper when she handed it back. I remember reading, "Luke, you can do much better than this. Your rough draft was better than your final effort..." before tearing my eyes away from the page, steam coming from my nostrils like a Brahma bull, silently cursing under my breath. But the interesting thing about what was coursing through me was--and this must have been astounding for a fourteen-year old--I realized I needed to be angry at myself, because Deb had rightly called me out on not working up to my full potential. Not that shoddy effort was a habit of mine, but she was determined it never become a habit. In that moment--crystallized forever in my soul--I swore to myself that no matter what shortcomings I had, there was no way in heaven or on earth that written communication would be one of them. Whatever field of endeavor I entered, I would be a great writer, and that horrific essay looking up at me from my desk would be the last lousy piece of garbage that ever came from my pen.

It is a fire that still burns inside me today. And to this day I am still grateful for how Deb inspired me. At first, I didn't understand why she seemed to be so hard on me, but during a conversation I had with her (whether it was in freshman English I or junior-level Survey of American Lit, I can't recall) she mentioned something about how she believed she was hardest on the ones who had the most potential. I got the message. You ride hard on the horses you know can carry the load, and I felt honored she had that much belief in me.

Interestingly enough, that moment erupted last school year, when a student asked me, "Why are you always pushing me so hard?" And before I could think, I responded, "Because I am hardest on the ones that have the most potential." The young man gave a smile of thanks. Internally, I told myself, "Oh my gosh, I've become Mrs. Harbaugh!"

Which is a good thing. The world needs more teachers like Deb was for me and others.

Now I teach students. I have my first novel coming out in the fall. And in truth, it all goes back to that day when she inspired me by throwing down that gauntlet, telling me "You can do better." Whatever I write, whatever difficulty I plow through to the best of my ability, and every student I might happen to inspire has Deb's fingerprints all over it.

Many thanks, Deb. The day you stop teaching will be a day of mourning.

And thus, the pantheon is complete.

Tom Foley. Jack Collins. Lou Voskuil. Ralph Shewell. Deb Harbaugh/Clarke.

Debt of gratitude? That's putting it mildly.

But that doesn't stop me from saying thank you, one more time.

No comments: