For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a teacher. I’ve had some great teachers and I’ve had some weak ones. Both influenced me for the good. Sometimes, seeing something done poorly can be a powerful motivation to do it well. But mostly, teachers who stirred up something inside me have had a powerful effect on my life. I’d like to recall some of them here for you.
In third grade, I remember Mrs. Arant. She was the first to really praise me for my reading ability. I don’t recall anyone else telling me that I was such a strong reader. Back at Montvue School, she had me lead a reading group of my peers and this began in me a deep love for reading. My parents had always pushed me to read. They taught by example. When I was a little boy, we had weekly visits to our public library and always participated in the library’s summer reading program. Mrs. Arant was the first teacher I recall– who helped me feel that this was a real strength in me.
In seventh and eighth grade, Sr. Bernadette, at St. Madeleine’s School, also praised and encouraged my reading ability. She added praise too for my writing. I think she was the first.
At Damien High School, I had a few excellent teachers. In eleventh grade, Mr. Steck, a strange and combative history teacher taught me to question everything. I remember taking a sociology class from him — and later an international relations class. He was brilliant, tough, and persistent. What I most recall from his class was the very idea of thinking critically. He taught me to explore what someone’s motivation might be before accepting their ideas as facts. Question everything. I value that and I hope I instill that value in my own students. Also at Damien, Fr. Cronin, a religion and English teacher, affirmed me in the idea of questioning everything and everyone. He and I battled because I took that value and applied it to my refusal to cut my hair. This became a monumental fight and I’m glad he helped me find a deep understanding of what it meant to resist powerful people. Finally, in twelfth grade, I had an English teacher named Mrs. Carney. She taught a Shakespeare class in a basement typing classroom. We had big electric typewriters on the desks and she played vinyl records of Shakespeare’s plays while reading along in our Folger Shakespeare paperbacks. I was in awe that language could do what she showed us Shakespeare do. I remember her pointing out images in Julius Caesar– of melting candles, crumbling statues– all Shakespeare’s way of showing us that man-made things fall apart. I was hooked.
At Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, I was fortunate to have many excellent professors. My English Composition teacher, Sr. Teresita Faye, RSHM, was a diminutive nun who ran a demanding writing class. I was a weak writer and she helped me immensely with her persistence and patience. As a junior, I took her for an upper division English class and I was determined to prove I was not the average writer she knew as a freshman. In a Modern American Poetry class she concluded the oral final exam by asking me if the poems we’d studied “helped me live better.” I have never forgotten that question and have asked some form of it to all my students. “How has this class helped you live better?”
Also at LMU, Professor Sharon Locy had a profound impact on me. She taught a lower-division class called “Introduction to Poetry” and that class planted seeds in me that still emerge. I fell in love with poetry and began to write it seriously as a result of that class. It would be many years until I pursued publication but she planted the seeds. I am fortunate to be in touch with her today as she is an Emerita Professor and a fine fiction writer! Check out her novel, The Ice Harvest.
Also at LMU, Dr. Frank Carothers was a strong influence on me. He was English Department chair during my years at LMU and a terrific and passionate teacher. I took a class from him on the English Romantic poets and it amazed me. He opened up William Blake, William Wordworth and many other British poets whose work I’d barely met in other classes. Fr. Robert Caro, S. J. also had a powerful impact on me. His Shakespeare Comedies and Histories class was tough but moving.
In graduate school at Notre Dame, I also had some wonderful professors. Fr. Tom Smith, C.S.C, in his Faith and Traditions course, encouraged me to read and research the poetry of Daniel Berrigan, S.J. He also encouraged me to use some of the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. in my studies. No one at Notre Dame was using his work but I felt I had permission and so I did. Needless to say, that affected me personally and academically. Both Berrigan and King helped me to see the connections between literature and activism. This had a direct impact on how I think and write today. Also, professors including Patricia Wismer, Regina Coll, and Catherine M. LaCugna opened me up to feminism in theology and my own life. Fr. Richard McBrien urged me to use Liberation Theologians in my studies. He introduced me to James Cone, the challenging Black Liberation theologian, Enrique Dusssel, and Leonardo Boff, the Brazilian Liberationist. All of these thinkers affected me deeply and I wouldn’t have discovered them if Dick McBrien and Tom Smith hadn’t encouraged me to venture out beyond catholic writers. These writers were not popular with some folks at Notre Dame so I was fortunate to find them.
Needless to say there have been other teachers who have impacted me both inside and outside the classroom. I’ve learned from fellow teachers like Katie Murphy, Dwayne Foster, Michela Costello, and Mike Cahir, at Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. Just listening to Dwayne Foster teaching Richard Wright from across the hall in the Writing Center, I learned how to teach especially complicated texts. His classroom was alive. I’ve also learned a great deal from my current colleagues, especially Helen Free, Ed Donnellan, and Randy Trivers.
I know Teacher Appreciation Week was last week — I think. But I didn’t want to let these days pass without reflecting on some of the people who helped me think, learn, and teach. There are negative examples too, as I wrote above. I’ll leave them for another reflection. For now, I’m full of gratitude to these teachers who formed and encouraged me. I bet if you think about it, you’ve had some champion teachers in your life too. Who are they?
The building in the photograph on this blog post is Foley Hall at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. When I was at LMU, Foley was the home of the English Department. The faculty officers were there and also a few English classrooms were there. I spent many long hours of days and nights in Foley learning how to write and read.