Bob's English teacher died Monday.
She called him Bob, which was never his name. She could have called him Hank or Gretchen or Dead Fish Face. It wouldn't have mattered. What mattered -- matters -- is Mrs. Chisholm made Bob believe he could be a writer. Long before editors and agents and even friends read him, Mrs. Chisholm was Bob's readership -- an empire of one.
There she was, steering her students through Shakespeare, Chaucer and Camus, all the while Bob waited for the moment -- "OK, time to turn in your essays" -- to unwrap the gift that was his writing. Oh, the poor woman. She had to endure his flash floods of sarcasm, spiritual musings, misspellings, death-bed penmanship, and enough teenage angst to shove an English teacher into retirement or a 12-step program.
Mrs. Chisholm didn't do either.
Instead, she encouraged Bob to write more. (Perhaps she had been drinking.) She even spent extra time helping him understand Camus' The Stranger. And what was this public school teacher's reward? Days later she received a book report charmingly entitled, "God is Dead."
Now Bob, it is well known, had no idea what the title meant. It just seemed like a shocking, Camus-like thing to write at age 17. He had never written anything remotely as curious and show-stopping as "God is Dead." (Some of his earlier works were "The Girl I Like," and its captivating sequel, "The Girl I Love.") Yet, Bob was brave enough to share his essay with Mrs. Chisholm and chicken enough not to show his Catholic mother.
Mrs. Chisholm didn't blink. She read his dark little essay and for reasons known only to her, gave him an A. She read his work out loud in class and years later, Bob learned she saved his essays and shared them with her students. And this was a fine, fine thing for his ego.
Ten years after high school, Bob and his ego were working for a South Florida newspaper. He hadn't kept in touch with Mrs. Chisholm because he was all grown up. Then, a week after one of his stories (unrelated to God) appeared, he got a note in the mail.
"I read your story in the paper. It was very interesting and well-written. I'm very proud to have had you as my student. Affectionately, Mrs. Chisholm."
Who writes their students after 10 years? Who gives grown-ups an A when they really need it? Mrs. Chisholm -- who died Monday in Florida not too far from where she taught Bob for three of his four high school years.
On the last day of the 1976-1977 school year, she asked her students about their plans after graduation. She told Bob he'd do fine whatever he did, which was mostly true. He and his friends turned to walk out of her classroom.
"You're not called Bob, are you?" Mrs. Chisholm said.
"Your friends call you Rob."
We looked at each other one more time.
"Why have you let me call you Bob all these years?"
"I don't know," I said.
Which was mostly true.