Why I am an English Teacher- A Story

At our session at NCTE, Dr. Z and I took a little bit of our time to tell the story of how each of us came to be the teachers we are today. In lieu of retelling that story, which was and would be neccessarily abbreviated, I am going to share an essay I wrote some years ago, in a graduate class on teaching writing, about my 9th grade English teacher, Mr. Will Fischer. If I had to identify the one thing that was most important in my becoming a teacher, it would be having had Mr. Fischer as my 9th grade teacher.

Of course, this points out one of the very strange features of teaching. We never know what kind of effect we are having on the people in our classrooms, as I am sure Mr. Fischer did not and could not know the effect he was having on me at the time (how could he, I didn’t know myself until many years later). And in case you are wondering, I sent him a letter some years ago sharing this with him.

Here you go:

Mr. Fisher: Life Wrecker, Life Changer

“The Universe is Wider than our Views of It.”
-H. D. Thoreau

I didn’t know it at the time but Will Fisher ruined my life. Many of the great teachers do. Sitting on a stool in the front of my ninth grade class in faded khakis, a green corduroy coat with leather patches on the elbows and scuffed brown Hushpuppies, he didn’t look like the kind of person who would wreck a student’s life. But he was.

In ninth grade I was a disinterested student (a theme that continued far past 9th grade), but I did like to read and occasionally got a kick out of writing. However, if either of those two things were happening in connection with an assignment from school, homework for example, then reading and writing were the last things I was likely to do. But Mr. Fisher didn’t seem to mind. He kept on reading to us from one book or another in a voice that was almost too quiet to hear.

Considering that I was in his class over fifteen years ago now, he must be in his seventies. Back then he just seemed older, in the way all adults do to all teenagers. He was going bald on the top of his head, and a neat gray beard hid his face. It was the kind of face that made you want to ask him if he had ever played Santa Claus. I always remember him reading from the opening chapters of Walden, by Henry David Thoreau.

Mr. Fisher made everyone in his “Man in Nature” English class do a book report. At fourteen I knew that I was way beyond book reports. Mr. Fisher showed me the stack of books from which we could choose. I chose a thick paperback that had a large mountain on the cover. It was Coming into the Country by John McPhee. Holding it in my hand I wasn’t sure about my choice. Mr. Fisher looked down at me and said in his quiet voice, “I think it’s a good one.” By the second page I was gripped by the vastness and beauty of Alaska. It didn’t let me go for days (if ever). I had no idea places like Alaska really existed, but even more, it had never occurred to me that someone could make a living by going to places like that and writing about them. It was the first time I realized that a writer was a job. And, if I wanted, it was a job I could have some day.

Though Mr. Fisher managed to con me into reading a few good books, I knew I was always a pushover in that department. But write in my journal? Never. I scrawled through a few meager assignments, and meandered through a few in class writings, always doing my best to say nothing. But somehow in deciphering my still unintelligible scrawl, Mr. Fisher found something to like. With a red pen he wrote in the margin , “This is an interesting story idea, why don’t you use it when we write fiction.” At least I wouldn’t have to think too hard for a topic when the assignment came due.

Then I sat down to write, and again I was gripped by something new. I worked that story idea as hard as I could. When it was done, it was the first time I had written something that was totally mine, and something I was proud of. My first short story was about the changes occurring as a result of the recession in the Iron Range in northern Minnesota. I could see in my mind the bar that was the setting, and when I was done writing, Mr. Fisher could too. It was the first time I was driven to write by something other than a teacher with an assignment.

Then came poetry. Mr. Fisher passed out slim little books to the class, with a picture of rocks on the front. Inside was a world of words I could not have imagined. He sat on the stool in the front of the class reading the cool clean lines of the poet Gary Snyder in his quiet voice, and again I was gripped. After Gary Snyder there was Dylan Thomas talking to us about “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” from an old record, Emily Dickinson compressing an entire prairie into “one clover and one bee.” I had always thought that language, even interesting language, even poetry, was governed by stiff rules. All the words had to march to the same drummer. Suddenly here were words flying, leaping. Here was language with its shirt off, sweaty and mud streaked from hard work in the woods. Here was language angry and chiding, light and lyrical, strong and steadfast in the face of overwhelming odds.

Having grown up in a very conservative Midwestern family, it had never occurred to me to question the nature of my life, nor the nature of anyone else’s. In Mr. Fisher’s class I began to understand for the first time that at some point I would be free to make up my own mind about things. I realized that there would be many choices, and not all of them would be easy or fun. The biggest choice, however, was going to be to choose something different.
Something different was not something that came up a lot at the dinner table when I was a child. Doing what was expected came up frequently, but not deciding that you wanted something else. The writers that Mr. Fisher exposed me to showed that the world was filled with more possibility than I could have imagined, and always would be. After that there was little chance of blindly following in the expectations of my family. Even if I did eventually choose something expected or approved (which I never did), it would be by my choice now, not theirs. Any plans that my family or I had for me had been laid to waste under the vast possibilities of an open mind.

Mr. Fisher gave me three books: Walden, Coming into the Country, and Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems. He gave me the chance to see a life radically different than the one I had been raised into. He gave me the chance to envision my own life, my own path. I didn’t know it at the time, but he ruined the life I had expected, and which had been expected for me. And I am grateful.

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