Thursday, September 8, 2011

Thanks to My Two Best Teachers

                Recently New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow wrote “In Honor of Teachers” because he believes too many educators are unfairly maligned. A few days later, the paper’s education blog had a post “What Teacher Would You Like to Thank?” Serendipity strikes again, I mused, since I recently had written about my concerns that our culture is losing a sense of gratitude. I also found myself trying to answer the question.
                The late Fred Frank, my advisor at Allegheny College, tops the list. I decided to become an English major while taking one of his intro level courses, and three years later he sponsored my thesis. During my junior year, I took Prof. Frank’s seminar on Gothic Literature. I had no real interest in the topic…but he was the professor. The first day he showed up as a headless spirit, which captures why I loved him as a teacher: the incredible passion for his subject and how that infused his teaching. My thesis topic ended up growing out of a small piece of that course, but in a way that followed my own interest in more contemporary literature. During my thesis, Prof. Frank allowed—actually encouraged—me to dive head-first into any rabbit hole I discovered. Some worked and some didn’t. What stuck more than anything was the faith he showed in my emerging intellectualism.  During the thesis time he also asked me to teach his seminar one day, the first time I ever really taught a class. But the real highlight of my relationship with Prof. Frank came right after I passed my oral defense. For the first time, he called me not Crotty, but Mark. I felt I had graduated.
                In high school my sophomore English teacher was Brendan Loonam. We were a motley crew: grinds, nerds, jocks, druggies, loners…and a teacher unlike any I’d ever experienced before or since. I’m not sure exactly how Mr. Loonam did it, but he created a dynamic in that classroom which made us all practically pant in anticipation of what we might think about on any given day. He prodded and poked; he asked giant questions; he was contradictory and contrary; he told us things maybe he shouldn’t have. More than anything he made it matter. In his class I discovered Shakespeare and Springsteen, and I learned to think about how and why both speak to us on multiple levels. My friend Rick and I used to look forward to the days Mr. Loonam had hall duty at lunch. We’d sneak past the other proctors, who would have insisted on seeing our non-existent hall passes, so we could visit with him.
                I feel very fortunate to have had two teachers like this in my life. However, it also saddens me a bit that I feel there is a wide gulf between these two and what I recall about the rest of my educational experience. Much of that is simply because I was the type of kid for whom school didn’t work very well, although I did fine and wasn’t any sort of problem. It’s not that I had many bad teachers; in fact, several were quite good in many ways. I don’t question their dedication. I truly am grateful for what they gave me in terms of basic skills and knowledge. But they weren’t passionate and inspiring; they gave me no sense of wanting to be like them in certain ways.  Prof. Frank and Mr. Loonam did that. More importantly, they helped me begin to envision a better version of myself.
                I know I never properly thanked Mr. Loonam. Sadly, he left the school at the end of that year. No one knew if he resigned or was fired; we all had our romantic versions of what happened. I like to imagine him standing up for some noble reason. know he ended up tending bar after that, and I hope he eventually went back to teaching. (I Googled his name and saw a link to a Facebook page for a teacher in New Jersey.) If he’s still alive, perhaps he’ll get on-line someday, do a little ego surfing, and stumble upon this blog post.  I draw some solace from my often mentioning him when I give presentations on different educational topics.
                I’m proud to say that a couple years into my teaching career, I wrote Prof. Frank a long letter in which I tried to articulate his influence on me. I probably failed miserably, in that it was still too soon. I know I talked about my teaching and things I had picked up from him in that arena. At that time, however, I could have no idea how the larger lessons would resonate almost thirty years later. Still, I know he appreciated the effort. I had signed the letter “Crotty.” His reply began with “Dear Mark.”
                What teacher would you thank? What would you say?

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