Friday, July 20, 2012

Thoughts Prompted by a Tribute

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+.


MoniqueChristina said...

Tears in my eyes as I read this... When I'm over-thinking something, Mr. Crotty comes to my mind... He's telling me to stop thinking too much, just like he did when I was 12 years old. I know I speak for everyone in the ESA Class of 1990 when I say, you're one of the best, Mark.
Much love & appreciation,
Monique Boutte Christina

Joyce Weiland said...

WOW- brings me right back to my English class as well. You always pushed us to do better, to give it our best shot. You are an incredible teacher and Tanner summed it for all of us. Thank you! It's great to find you again! Joyce Garboushan Weiland

Carole Braithwaite said...

What an unexpected, yet happy surprise. There have been many times over the last 20 (or more) years when I have thought of the valuable lessons I learned in your class. I always think of the encouragement I got from you and remember the many lessons on sentence structure, Mr. Crotty (and yes, I did end up far, far away from Lafayette).

Thank you for being such a wonderful and caring educator!
Carole Braithwaite

Aimee Futch Swisher said...

Great words from my favorite teacher. Thank you for sharing, and for teaching me yet again.

Mark Crotty said...

Monique, how wonderful to hear from you! Twice in the past couple of years I've been in New Orleans and went to Mulattes. Hoped we might run into you. I hope that life has treated you well and that you are thriving in every regard.

Your words are very kind, and I appreciate the thoughts. They mean a great deal coming from you.

Mark Crotty said...

Joyce--awesome! I hope that life has turned out wonderfully for you, full of happiness and dreams. I think of your family often, and your mom remains one of my role models. I have no doubt you honor her legacy in your own life.

Mark Crotty said...

Carole, I knew life was going to take you places...more like you were going to chase what you wanted and find it. You, Sonia, and Aubrey each had a genuine graciousness that was unusual and boded so well for the people you would become.

Mark Crotty said...

Aimee, I've wondered what happened to you since you left Dallas at some point.

You know, "Thirteen Minutes" still remains on of the best pieces of middle school writing I've seen!

Craig said...

Meant to respond to this a few weeks ago...
I have one academic memento from ESA - my copy of Catcher in the Rye and the paper I wrote about it for your English class. It was the only A+ I received in the class (and for that matter, probably the only A).
I greatly appreciate everything you did for me in the class and on the field.
All the best,
Craig Aubrey

Mark Crotty said...

Aubs! How great to hear from you. I can just picture you out on the right side of defense, those long legs getting stuck in on a tackle, then racing down the flank to whip in a cross.

The last I remember, you were out in California studying, I think, marine biology (or something like that). I hope that your life has turned out wonderfully!