I remember every English teacher I ever had—even back in the Elementary school days when it was called “Language Arts”.
It shouldn’t be surprising that English was my favourite subject. But in addition, I was also blessed with a good run of English teachers throughout my academic life (with one exception in Grade 8). I can say with confidence that the teachers who were the most influential, and most responsible for shaping my mind and inspiring my imagination were my English teachers.
I always had the most respect for my English teachers. Part of that came from the understanding that out of all the core subjects, English was the most “different”. English is, by its nature, subjective. Subjects like Math and Science and, to some extent, Social Studies typically rely on simple, concrete, black and white answers. You solve the equation, deduce the chemical compound, know what year the French Revolution started—or you don’t.
English, on the other hand, has a habit of delving into the abstract where there is no one perfect answer, merely an “idea” of an answer. English studies exist permanently in the grey zone. Interpretation, personal experience, individual reflection and many other subjective themes come into play when studying English.
Roland Barthes famous essay, “The Death of the Author”, points how a piece of writing “is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.” He subsequently defangs the notion that a piece of writing is only meant to be understood how the author intended it. Instead, the primary source of interpretation is the reader. The reader brings their own lens to a piece of writing.
Now put yourself in the shoes of a teacher who has to teach all that and more to a classroom of squirming, noisy children (at all Grade levels, really).
It’s easy to see a book or a piece of writing as just white paper and black letters. But you must learn to see the grey in-between. An English teacher’s job is to teach how to analyze and read between the lines of not just books, but in life as well; to see the deeper meaning of things, to ask the bigger questions, and to plunge into deeper answers.
I like to think that the work on an English teacher isn’t just to teach how to read, or who Robert Frost was, or how to bring a narrative to a climax and follow with a denoument.
I like to think that the work of an English teacher is to inspire the mind.
Into the grey in-between
In Grade 7 I was drawing comics in the interim before English class officially started. I was engrossed in the story (it was Pokemon, of course), and didn’t notice the teacher was approaching my desk until it was too late. With a tinge of panic, I tried to slide the comic under my books. But she had already seen it. She asked me what I was working on and I bashfully showed her the comic, a single page with a honeycomb of panels. I felt ashamed for some reason. “This is really good,” she said after looking through it. “You could be a great storyteller someday.”
I was both shocked and relieved.
Not nearly as shocked as the time she reviewed a story, wherein an unseen creature drags a kid off into the woods and then lobs the kid’s spinal cord back at his friends. Instead of a reprimand for being too graphic, and a visit to the counselor’s office, she commented on its likeness to Stephen King—a writer I still respect greatly.
I had the same teacher for Grade 11 and 12 English. In fact, I dropped down from Grade 12 Advanced Placement English into Standard English just to be in her class. Both years she championed my work-in-progress pirate novel, and even took the time to edit my chapters and give me personal feedback on the story. She helped teach me how to analyze not only books, but movies as well, for their deeper meanings. Many years later, she came to the book launch of a student-writing anthology I helped publish. To this day, I still consider her a friend.
It was these little unexpected moments of encouragement that further fueled my passion for writing. For many years I wanted to be an English teacher. I wanted to inspire kids the same way I was inspired. Though my life took a different and necessary direction, I still look back at the English teachers I had with admiration and respect. Their influence on my writing—and my life, really
And so, with that, to all my English teachers past: a voluminous thank you for inspiring a quiet little boy’s passion for the written word, and helping him see beyond the black and whites and into the grey in-between.