In America 2/9: The Teacher

He did that to people, reached inside them and found the string and pulled it.

You sat in the front row, all the better for him to torture you. He talked about the Miller’s Tale and noted when Canterbury characters shared your name. He put his hands on your shoulders once while talking about love and all the air went out of your lungs. You didn’t know it was possible to feel like that, just from words, and you could hardly meet his eyes. He argued with you, forced you to defend yourself. He scribbled all over your essays in red marker and then, when you complained that red was harsh and punitive, he did it in blue, and you started to dread ballpoint pens.

Kids fought to get into his classes. He never took freshmen and rarely took sophomores, so you waited. They cut his Shakespeare class, the one you’d been longing for since freshman year when, walking down the hall to PE, you overheard him shout, “She was a shrew, which means she was a RAVING BITCH!” Teachers, adults, didn’t swear in front of you, fearing for your impressionable minds. His classes were aerial combat, bashing you into the shapes he wanted everytime you overshot the target and slammed into the wall. They cut Shakespeare the year you’d been eligible and you fired off the first of many angry letters to the principal, defending him. That decision was the first thing you saw that hurt him. You looked at his face when he announced the decision, bee-stung bitterness he entrusted you with the way he trusted you with his favorite books and his lessons and a pet lizard he kept in the back of the room, and you thought, “Oh, no.” He started teaching science fiction instead, drove the trustees wild. You enrolled in anything he taught and never looked back.

Senior year, AP English, his class was first. You think often that you wouldn’t have attended school at all that year if his room didn’t promise you something first thing in the morning. When you got to college you knew how to write a five-part essay, how to make an argument, how to sit up all night smoking and drinking coffee and talking about medival weaponry and theories about women’s rights in early civilizations and you knew that was how people did things because of him. Because every morning he’d come in and start talking at you and assume you could keep up. His expectations couldn’t have been higher. He didn’t like anybody who wouldn’t meet them. He tolerated, graded, taught the others, but you’d had flashes of how unbelievably fucking joyful it was to be one of the special ones he cared about and you didn’t ever want to be out of that sunlight.

One morning he was talking about cadence and sound, writing sound, and he asked you, stopped right in front of your desk and fixed you with that gaze like a butterfly to a sheet of velvet, had you ever read The Bells? You shook your head, terrified he’d laugh at you. He loved Poe, loved Tolkien and Doyle and Asimov and Heinlein and Stoker and others but really loved Poe. So when you said no he half-ran to his desk and pulled out a battered copy and at the top of his lungs he read to you, in a voice that crashed over you like wave after wave after wave, magnificent words like a prayer to the gods to look down at how glorious man had become:

In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,

In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,

Leaping higher, higher, higher,

With a desperate desire,

And a resolute endeavor

Now – now to sit, or never,

By the side of the pale – faced moon.

Oh, the bells, bells, bells!

What a tale their terror tells

Of Despair!

How they clang, and clash and roar!

What a horror they outpour

On the bosom of the palpitating air!

Yet the ear, it fully knows,

By the twanging,

And the clanging,

How the danger ebbs and flows;

Yet the ear distinctly tells,

In the jangling,

And the wrangling,

How the danger sinks and swells,

By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells –

Of the bells –

Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells –

Oh, you were lost then. Words never sounded the same.

You had a brilliant college professor for Shakespeare, a scholar known the world over for his work, another man whose classes could only be had by wheedling and scheming and calling in favors. You couldn’t listen to him talk about Hamlet, it was flat and dry and awful. It was dead. You longed fiercely for the graybeard in the tiny high school classroom, standing at the window open on the first warm day of spring, reading Laertes, the age dropping from him like a veil. You pitied the people who had never seen him play Lear for an audience of 25, only 15 of whom were fully awake that early in the school day.

He taught you that writing was not just something that sat there, that you had to make an argument with your words, that you had to be convincing to tell a story well. He taught you that writing was subversive and destructive and political and cruel. When you didn’t convince him he told you so, not intimidated like other teachers were, afraid of “discouraging” you. When he thought you were derivative, he told you so. When he’d read it elsewhere, done better, it didn’t matter that that person was an accomplished writer and an adult, if it was better than you, he told you so. Most of the time that criticism, non-constructive almost-abuse, makes you want to hide under your bed, still, to this day. But he held out the possiblity that one day you would astonish him, and he wanted to see that day. Tearing you down wasn’t sport, it was purpose, and he made sure you knew that, so you tried for him when for everybody else who said the slightest discouraging word you said fuck it, I’ll do something easy I’m good at instead. You learned the concept of loyalty, from the way he refused to let you give up, and no one laughed harder than he did when you pushed back, and won.

At the end of the year he asked for a 30-page paper and you turned in an 80-page thesis on Sherlock Holmes and emotional duality sourced with everybody on earth and told him your greatest fear was that it would come back with “THIS SUCKS” scrawled on it. When you got it back, it said exactly that, followed by half a page of praise that from anyone else would have been faint. From him it was fulsome. You danced in your dining room and showed it to everyone. It’s 12 years old now and takes up space in your filing cabinet, as do all the notes and citations and research for it, two whole boxes’ worth the last time you moved. You refuse to get rid of it. It’s the greatest award you’ve ever gotten, and you have plaques on your walls. You know from awards, but none of them compare. You pull it out, now and again, just to make sure it was real, that it happened the way you remember.

To the swinging and the ringing

Of the bells, bells, bells –

Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells –

To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!