At the time, Tom Godley, my 11th grade English teacher and JV water polo coach, impressed me as the smartest person I'd ever met. Relatively young and humorless, he didn't seem to like me at all -- though honestly, he didn't seem to like any of us much.
Still, I marveled at how he spoke in complete sentences, chose his words with precision, and stressed clear, logical reasoning. His lectures were off-the-cuff essays, and I took notes on them with the fury of a court stenographer. So when we read George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," my mind was already in tune with its deceptively simple message: write clearly to think clearly.
As I applied Orwell's suggestions to my own writing, I began noticing more and more the quality of others' writing until my extra-curricular reading included Metamorphosis, Slaughterhouse 5, Going After Cacciato, and As I Lay Dying. And I would ask Mr. Godley about them, not for his attention or approval, but because I didn't know who else to ask and I really, really wanted some feedback.
To his credit, he was never discouraging (which was probably as close as he could get to encouraging without a spring popping loose) and once even let me get away with sitting out a 200-yard conditioning swim for a five minute discussion during practice.
While Mr. Godley inspired me as a student, he doesn't give me much direction now that I'm in his place. Like any other English teacher in today's public schools, I have a disturbing number of kids who haven't figured out why they keep showing up to class every day or what they hope to get out of the experience.
While kids who are already curious are relatively easy to energize, the number of kids I've truly inspired to become curious readers is probably on par with the number whose main objective was simply to survive me with the least amount of damage.
I also hear more frequently from adults in their 20s to mid-30s who read critically for pleasure that they picked up the habit after high school, were inspired by a home atmosphere of literary curiosity, or (and this is the biggest tragedy to me) managed to hold onto or develop their habit in spite of their high school experience.
Still, I'm in no hurry to abandon the importance of an English class in shaping our habits and attitudes regarding books. As young people have become more sophisticated in what they know and can do, they've taken greater advantage of alternatives to the traditional school setting like home school, Running Start, and on-line courses.
In these cases, the inspirational story has more likely been replaced than eliminated. I also see stories of an English classroom's destructive influence as cautionary tales supporting the general idea: if the English classroom is the ideal place to instill a love of literature, it's also the ideal place to do the opposite. Perhaps we English teachers need our own version of a Hippocratic Oath.
As an enthusiastic but practical guy, I teach via a hierarchy of priorities that begins with inspiring my students to be successful and supportive of one another (i.e. don't fail and don't pick on each other) before building up to the rather lofty ambition of inspiring them to read provocative, challenging stories, poems, essays, novels, and books. And not only does each kid in a class of 30 bring to the bargain his or her own priorities but they rarely make it any easier by telling you what kind of inspiration they need.
For that reason, English teachers may be doing more to promote literary arts in our culture than we think. You see, I've never written about Mr. Godley before. He was only at my Alma Mater for two or three years before getting a job a few towns away. At the time I doubt that I understood either how or how much he inspired me. Within a few years, a handful of amazing college professors overshadowed his impact by leading me in far more rewarding directions. And he didn't really come across as the kind of person who much cared whether I was inspired or not. I can probably come up with even more excuses, sincere and plausible, why I never let him know.
In more ways than not, teens today aren't much different. It's unusual that my inspired students let me know -- at least directly. But that doesn't mean it's not happening. It's all the more reason I'm curious as to others' stories.
What person or work started you on the road that led you to this column in The Huffington Post?