A couple of weeks ago, I received an email telling me that I should read Tanner Colby’s most recent book, Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America. I receive many unsolicited book recommendations, usually robo-generated based on my buying patterns. I ignore just about every single one. This one I didn’t, because it came from an educator at my first school, Episcopal School of Acadiana, where I taught Tanner Colby over 20 years ago. Along with this new work, Tanner has written numerous articles and best-selling biographies of John Belushi and Chris Farley. I had no idea.
There is more to the story, but first I have to praise this tremendous book. Tanner spins a tale that mixes his personal realizations with a much larger history in a way that forces introspection. The work is incredibly well-researched, with very human experiences set within a vast social context. It’s truly intelligent, insightful, and beautifully crafted. Tanner also strikes that delicate and elusive balance between pricking our consciences without being sanctimonious. He also manages to infuse appropriate humor into a difficult subject. I laughed aloud when he described Acadiana as “a more humid Ireland with better food.” I just devoured the book, so proud that the author was one of my former students. I must admit, I took special delight in noting how many of the different sentence patterns Tanner used that I had taught him.
Now, with a nod to Paul Harvey, here is the rest of the story. Why was I emailed about this book and not Tanner’s earlier work? At the end was the “Author’s Note.” It began:
Above my computer, I have posted a report card of mine from Lafayette’s Episcopal School of Acadiana, dated 10/25/86. In the comment section my sixth-grade English teacher, Mark Crotty, has written, “Whenever Tanner turns in something, he says something like, ‘This is great’ or ‘This is an A.’ Well, he needs to do more than say it; he needs to do it. Tanner certainly has the ability and the desire. Now he needs the drive.
Grade for the first quarter: C+.
I would first like to thank Mr. Crotty for my C+. Without him and a handful of other great teachers, I might still be an idiot. (289)
Wow. Just wow. I was floored. Honored. Humbled. Dumbfounded. It is so incredibly cool. I have to admit, I’ve read this passage over and over. And, yes, I’m bragging here in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable. Please forgive that, for there are larger points, ones for which you could change the teacher’s name and the message would still be worth stressing.
As the philosopher Karl Japsers has written, how we respond to setbacks often determines the type of person we become. Rather than let that C+ become an excuse, Tanner used it for motivation. He developed resilience and grew in determination; it helped to steel him for the very difficult life of a writer. Dealing with setbacks also helps a person to grow in empathy, a quality Tanner reveals throughout the book.
Along those same lines, while I like to think Tanner’s writing ability has deep roots in my class, he took away larger, more ambiguous lessons. On paper I was teaching him composition skills, such as sentence structure, paragraphing, mechanics, word choice, and supporting detail. Nowhere do I recall ever seeing a curriculum which delineated to not let a student remain an idiot. But it really is the goal, however tongue-in-cheek.
That goal can manifest itself in any number of unforeseen ways, at any given time. Sometimes it’s early, such as when a child asks probing questions about life or when a teenager becomes passionate about a certain cause. Often it’s years down the road, when someone draws on their composite experiences to deal with the vagaries of life. That C+ which seems so tragic at the time could turn out to be a blessing.
Finally, Tanner’s gracious tribute reminds me of what I want my children to experience in school, why I willingly write those massive tuition checks each year. Yes, I want them well educated in the traditional sense. But more than anything, I want them spending their days being influenced by as many great teachers as possible. (And truly great ones are rare.) No matter what my children end up doing as adults, whatever they take from those relationships is what will serve them best.
Thank you very much, Tanner. I am not going to change that grade from sixth grade. But for your most recent work: A+.