Tuesday, April 2, 2013

An Ode to High School English Teachers (with a Bonus Life Lesson)

Walk down memory lane with me, and there will be some treasure at the end of the road.

Pat Sertic was an exuberant, gifted teacher. I recall the entire reading list of my ninth grade year, because I can pinpoint his dramatic readings of each text—leaping, shouting, and sinister whispering were par for the course. He had a stutter that paused the madness, at points. His aged, small frame could sometimes be found hunched outside to his classroom, smoking a cigarette discreetly. During typically quiet times of writing or test taking, Mr. Sertic would turn on the local university's classical music radio station; there was one particular song, Bolero by Maurice Ravel, that he would quiz us on every time it rhythmically started. I had more than one essay that was marred by a pencil scratch due to a yell of "Who can name this piece? Who is it by?!"

I just turned on Bolero to play in the background while I write this, actually.

Mr. Sertic fueled my passion for academic writing and reading. When before I had just considered reading as a pathway to general knowledge, I began to appreciate the journey of wading through a text and observing the storytelling methods of syntax and pacing. If I had felt that writing for a class was previously a slog, he twisted each writing assignment into an exploration of the treasures in a novel. Each essay was required to have an illustrated cover and a whimsical title—my sweepingly epic Gone with the Wind essay cover is still imprinted in my mind. Pat Sertic taught me editing tricks that have helped me impress professors and employers alike (start from the last word, so your brain will focus on punctuation instead of the words!). If he were alive today, I would be yearning to give him a high five right this very moment—that is how pumped I am feeling after recounting our journey together.

For my next two years in high school, I was in the capable hands of Jody Bradberry. If Mr. Sertic had ignited a fire under me, Mrs. Bradberry adjusted the knobs until I was at the perfect temperature. Tall, fierce, bawdy, and undoubtedly sharp, Jody Bradberry did not suffer fools. She probably still doesn't. In my tenth grade English class and my eleventh grade AP composition class, she challenged my writing and my text interpreting until I had no choice but to give my best one hundred percent of the time. She scared the living daylights out of me, at first; now, she is my ever-loving teacher hero.

My mid-grade effort usually matched the near-best of my fellow English classmates, so I often underutilized my talents. All of those shenanigans stopped once I began to repeatedly receive 8 out of 9 points for each essay I turned in; many of the others around me were achieving perfect scores or even were ecstatic about reaching an 8. I can't recall if I finally approached her or if she decided to shake me into awareness, but Mrs. Bradberry revealed to me that she was purposely giving me a lower grade so that I would actually try my best. She knew that my aggravation would cause me to ramp up my skills and focus on hitting a home run every time. Jody Bradberry drilled vocabulary, sentence structure, and academic seriousness into my head. But then she'd go and spend a whole class period helping my classmates create a list of Must-See Movies for me when they discovered I hadn't seen any PG-13 or R movies up to that point. I still remember her starring a few particular movies, scribbling "Hard Watch" next to gory or titillating ones.

This woman came to my wedding reception. That is how wonderful she is and how much I value her time in my life.

My senior year English class was not as joyous or as intense as the previous high school years had been. My teacher, who shall remain nameless, decided that I was the bane of her existence and treated me as such. The AP Literature class that she taught had been her longtime gig, along with teaching at the local university. After being celebrated in my other classes, this teacher consistently smacked down my thoughts during class discussions and pulled me aside to speak with me about my "inappropriate" behaviors. For some reason, my brain tricks my memory into believing that the lights were always off in the room. Together, this teacher and I trudged through two semesters of bickering and mutual hatred. I had the highest grade in the class, nonetheless.

Reviewing these formative years, I realized an important truth about the people one has in his or her life. There are individuals one has around simply to amp them up; it's typically a friend who constantly invites you to crazy activities or calls you to exclaim over even the most minute thing. One can also pinpoint the intense, intelligent pal who is available to constructively critique or pull you along to a make-up counter or nutritionist because it's for your own good. And there are always people in your life who live to knock you down, no matter what your actions are; the common vernacular label for these people is "haterz."

And each of these types are necessary. You must have them in your life. To build character and earn respect, these three personalities must envelope and entice you, enrage you and engage you. To be the best you, you need:

  • A cheerleader
  • A guru
  • A critic 

I don't have contact with any of these three teachers anymore, but I have filled their positions with others. The "cheerleader" and "guru" titles are strewn around prodigiously; the "critic" ones come and go. But I am acutely aware that there is a place for all of them in my life, because I am absolutely set on becoming the best Me I can be.

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