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Identity

On the Magical English Teacher in Life and Literature

The life-changing English teacher is a cliché of films and books about high school. But its persistence IRL suggests its based in truth.
September 3, 2015, 7:00pm

Picture an English teacher and we're probably imagining the same thing: Non-threatening, twinkly-eyed, maybe wearing tweed or something. Big bag full of books. Easy access to scrap paper. That thing where you put one leg up on a desk for a casual-but-authoritative lean that says "I'm going to talk to you about how Shakespeare is like rap."

The figure of the magical English teacher is common enough that I think it could safely be called a trope. Film and literature often introduce these wise, gentle beings in a mentorship role—they inspire already-talented characters and change the trajectory of troubled lives. There's John Keating in The Dead Poets Society, whipping his class into a Walt Whitman-inspired frenzy and getting sacked for the feat. Or the classic "naive teacher changes inner city kids' lives through creative writing" narrative of Erin Gruwell and her Freedom Writers. Or The Perks of Being A Wallflower's Bill Anderson. Or Mr. Medina, from Gilmore Girls. Or Matilda's Miss Honey, etc. etc.

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Their portrayal in film and literature tends to be fairly one-note ("Look at this softly inspirational genius who knew just when to push me!"), it's also not far from the way the English teacher is spoken of in real life. Countless trite award speeches, book dedications, and valedictorian addresses have praised these arbiters of basic humanity, the people who made the darkness of Steinbeck or irreverence of Dickens accessible for the first time, or at least less boring than calculus. But what is it about English teachers that has us talking (or, as the case may be, writing articles for women's websites) about them years after graduation? Why do English teachers in particular have a rep for changing students' lives?

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"Do we do that?" asked Mr. B, my particular magical English teacher, when I told him what I was writing about (we are still in touch because I am a nerd and he and his husband have turned out to be wonderful people in addition to game-changing educators). "Your class was in my first year of teaching. I was trying to survive and keep up with the other teachers and not have all of you laugh at me. 'Changing students' lives' was the last thing on my mind."

Mr. B suggested it was the texts that inspired, not him, though he acknowledged a certain vulnerability inherent to teaching a subject like literature that makes for a deeper student-teacher relationship. "All teachers are vulnerable in front of students, but especially teachers of the humanities," he said, adding that he often shares stories of personal triumphs and failures with students in the service of illuminating a text. "We give students a forum to talk about love, death, suffering, isolation, risk, success, fear, acceptance, parental conflict… the teacher becomes a gateway to understanding these profound human experiences and emotions. When I deconstruct the experiences of Robert Ross [in Timothy Findley novel The Wars], students give me the credit for opening them up to his work."

The books aren't important. They're jumping off points for so much more."

So maybe it is reading that changes lives, and we merely associate the effects of literature with the people who showed it to us in the first place. Changed readers go on, sometimes to be writers, creating a sort of ouroboros where the most magical thing you can do is read and the people who help you do so are wizards. There are, of course, probably a few kids whose lives are changed by their math, science or gym teachers every year. But the fact that English teachers note the talent or ambition or creativity of sensitive young word nerds means they end up elegized more publicly and more often. In a cynical light, being singled out as special by an English teacher might just be the adolescent awakening of the famously insatiable ego of a writer.

And yet, it's often the fact that English teachers critique a student's work more harshly than their peers that makes them feel special in the first place. Sonya Mann, a writer from San Francisco, said her freshman English teacher offered feedback for her stories "in ways I didn't appreciate until recently, because the comments were too right for an arrogant teenager to grok. She was kind to me, and encouraging, at a time in my life when I was considering suicide without admitting it to myself. Mrs. T was really important."

I try to think back to the texts I'd studied with Mr. B. A horrible book about Japanese internment in Canada during World War II, Macbeth… maybe Duddy Kravitz? I honestly can't remember. I do remember talking about Japanese culture, about the space between mothers and daughters, about what it means to want something, and how it feels to lose. "The books aren't important," Mr. B told me in an email. "they're jumping off points for so much more."

Meredith Heil, also a writer, said her boarding school English teacher not only made her feel special, but passed this message on to her family. "During a parent-teacher conference in 10th grade, when I was just a scrubby kid with a buzz cut, Harry Potter glasses and ripped up, baggy Carhartts, this teacher took my conservatively dressed, freaked out parents aside and told them I had what it took to become a real writer," she said. "No one had ever said as much of me, or taken my work so seriously before. It meant a lot."

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Heil said the "grey area" of English appealed to her as a teenager who was thoughtful and smart but didn't enjoy the competitive nature of standardized tests or the right-or-wrong finality of math. "Good English teachers see how personal and emotional the work they're teaching can be," she said. "They know exactly when to teachThe Catcher in the Rye and when to give a book of life-affirming poetry to a kid who's quietly struggling. This teacher handed me a lot of extra books that weren't on the curriculum but that really spoke to who I was and who I was trying to become, which touched me more than an extra set of Calculus problems could. Thinking back on it, he introduced me to almost every single piece of writing I loved, and still love from high school—the kind of writing that makes a person want to write. That's big."

After taking a short fiction class with him in her senior year, Heil decided to major in Creative Writing in college. At graduation, he gave her a cassette tape of Alan Ginsberg reading his poems aloud. She still has it.

Rather than the joy of reading or of feeling uniquely talented, the reason students find themselves impacted by English teachers might simply be that their teachers communicated honestly with them. For me, certainly, English lit and creative writing classes provided a space to talk about issues I was struggling with, plus an easy out—themes from the book—within which to couch my own fears or hopes, and an increased ability to express myself at a time I was particularly desperate to do so. Macbeth might not have been immediately relevant to my life in eleventh grade, but I defy you to find a sixteen year-old girl that doesn't consider themselves an expert on betrayal, or any high school student unaware of the complex hierarchies that keep a power structure in place.

Mr. B had a magical english teacher himself. "She really challenged me," he said of his twelfth grade literature teacher. "If she asked the class a question and no one answered she'd just stare at us until someone said something. She didn't accept the obvious or easiest or most common responses. She wanted us to really think."