Encomium for Mr. C

I was recently contacted by a high-school classmate who was collecting thank-you letters for our old English teacher on the occasion of his retirement. Turns out there were already a couple of references to him on my blog, which are echoed below. Because why lose out on repeating a good turn of phrase? I’m sure Mr. C would understand.

Mr. C was a handsome devil. I expect he still is. I adored him from a distance. I hovered in doorways around him. I was a weirdo and too alone to know I was lonely. Mr. C made me feel solid and all right. I felt I had his respect. He had a novel in progress about the Vietnam War era, and he let me read it. He read my own novel in progress and didn’t laugh. But in the scene where the protagonist and her crush kissed, he wrote in the margin, “Finally!”

He liked to give us unusual assignments. Once he asked us to produce a version of Dante’s Inferno. Some smart-aleck set his right in our high school, and I remember how much we all enjoyed the part where Mr. C turned into a werewolf. The boy had written: “He had hair all over, even on the top of his head.”

I had allergies and a perpetually runny nose. One day Mr. C was lecturing on the concept of chivalry. He leaned over to my desk and swooped up all my wadded-up tissues, and he said, “If I take all these snotty tissues and put them in the trash for you, that’s chivalry.” He had a keen sense of what teenagers will find just titillating enough to keep on listening. Once, demonstrating some concept I’ve forgotten, he smacked himself on the back pocket. Some of us must have looked embarrassed, or tittered, because he paused for a fraction of a second, just enough to evaluate the effect he’d had, and bounded right back into his recital with the words: “And then if I slap myself on the other buttock . . .”

I said he was lecturing, but he didn’t lecture, really. He performed. He entertained, chivvied and upbraided us. One gray morning we came in and Mr. C remarked that it was a damp, drizzly November of the soul outside. We were listless. Outraged, he said, “It’s from Moby Dick, you bums! You haven’t even read the first page!” He probably said “little snots,” in fact. He was always lying in wait for us, ready to ambush or be ambushed. As long as brilliance was alive in the classroom he was satisfied. He could provide his own but what he was really looking for was ours. He played the Jimmy Stewart role in “Harvey” one winter in a church basement, and the entire class went to see him.

He had us read Kant. I have never been so lost in an English class, before or since. He liked to challenge us, and he didn’t have patience for piety or false sentiment. I asked him if he thought I could read The Bell Jar, meaning did he think I was ready for what I felt sure would be a shattering experience. He said with a tart smile, “You could”—meaning, I think, that I was better off not asking permission to experience things. (The book was okay.) I don’t believe he ever let me take the easy way out. He was ruthless in that way.

He understood about the writing life. Once I managed to spend a whole class period in the library, writing something. I told him about it and said I couldn’t wait to be an adult so that I could have all the time I wanted to write. Mr. C laughed in my face. He knew things I didn’t know yet. He wrote in my senior yearbook, “Cathy, remember: a writer is someone who writes.”

Once when I was home from college, I ran into him on King’s Highway in Haddonfield and he told me we should grab coffee sometime. I had no idea how to handle that. I couldn’t imagine sitting down with Mr. C as an equal and calling him by his first name. Now I’m 43 and it still feels unnatural, but in honor of your retirement, Mr. C, I will make the supreme effort and say: Matt, thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *