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Mario Batali

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Loyal Blue Issiminger: The Greatest Teacher Of My Life

Posted: 01/08/09 09:35 AM ET

1975

I sat down in my first class at my new high school in Madrid, Spain. I looked around wondering as the 10th grade watched in fear, perplexed and nervously laughing while Loyal Issiminger led me down the path of hellfire and brimstone into early American literature.

It was a true 20-minute marathon sermon based mostly on Jonathan Edwards's legendary Great Awakening piece complete with spitting, mad jumping, diabolical shrieking and infernal shaking as if to fill the classroom and the shaking students with the fear of the lord as they might have feared the lord in 17th century colonial America. The dude? He was medium large, 5'10"ish, dancing wild eyes, a graying comb over, black horned rim spectacles and a salt-and-pepper beard.

He wore a black turtleneck, tweed jacket, gray slacks and handmade boots from Sevilla everyday I knew him for the rest of my high school days. The inspiration? Pure knowledge through original material. Never have a I met a man so enthused about writing, never have I been so enthused about a single topic... Issiminger took us through the entire canon of American literature classics starting with Ben Franklin's autobiography and Edwards Sinners through Paine's Common Sense and Irving's Rip Van Winkle into Poe, past Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, through Emerson and Thoreau and civil responsibility and American transcendentalism.

Each step so clearly presented with such a juicy and spirit filled, nearly savage passion about the topic, about the classroom about us the students each filled with potential and point of view, tools for his molding, albeit willing participants in the crazy journey that good classrooms can be into the knowledge that can self generate and make more knowledge out of the clumsy hungry raw materials we were.

Testing and assignments were filled with potential for both failure and heroics and a great test or project score was not the guarantee of a great semester. It was always a full court press in the classroom and his often frightening excitement about the subject matter never swayed... he lived for this stuff!!!! In my life there was no other single teacher who so filled me with the self-awareness of my own potential, no single person who pushed me and pushed me in such subtle ways. He handed us The Sound and the Fury without a word about technique or the stream of conscious style and laughed for 10 minutes when we walked in the next day, literally mindf---ed by the whole assignment.

Later that year he handed us Djuna Barnes and John Hawkes, all the while watching for signs of life in our awake and yet nascent self-confidence he gave and we received and he was without a doubt the greatest teacher of my life until that point and someone who instilled in me a constant unquenchable thirst for knowledge all based on the original documents, Loyal Issiminger was a cheerleader for the home team in my heart of hearts.

National Mentoring Month is spearheaded by the Harvard School of Public Health, MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership, and the Corporation for National and Community Service.