Hint: My confidence had more to do with role models than with writing
Dateline: Freshman Year in College, 1994
“Wake up, class!” Professor Harrison boomed, a big smile on his face, quickly clapping his hands twice by his right ear, as if clapping would jostle the remnants of sleep from our bleary, first-period eyes.
He held that pose long enough to take in the sea of tired faces staring back at him.
His posture was ramrod straight, his chin pointed high, his hands in wait as if he would, at any moment, clap again and break out in a solo Flamenco.
When the soft buzz of chitchat and rustling backpacks grew dim, Professor Harrison relaxed, bringing his hands and attention to the papers on his podium. The clapping was over, for now at least.
We waited. In his large-rimmed black glasses, a neatly buttoned baby blue Oxford and color-coordinated, wrinkle-free navy slacks, he appeared the very picture of intelligence, poise and confidence, a look that complemented his rococo speaking style and thick, Caribbean-tinged British accent.
“Today,” he continued, his voice strong and full of energy and passion, “We shall plumb the depths of Shakespeare’s wonderful Hamlet; I am sure all of you have read the assignment by now and are prepared to share your thoughts, yes?” Without waiting for a response to his rhetorical question, he breathed on, “Very well then; let us begin.”
That memory and many others of Professor Harrison have been indelibly etched in my mind. I see him pushing a rickety cart filled with his very own, precious copy of the Oxford English Dictionary; sharing his love of etymology while writing with flourish on the board; encouraging us to think critically rather than to simply regurgitate content.
And as I consider my personal literacy narrative, looking at the reading and writing threads that created the "me" I am today, I wonder: why did Professor Harrison leave such a lasting impression on me? Why has he become a legend in my mind?
Dateline: Youth through High School, 1970s to 1984
Other than a handful of blurry memories, the image of how my early literacy developed is dark—although in reflection, it is a darkness that speaks. I see a hazy image of my mother, reading in her worn, golden-toned armchair, feet tucked beneath her slim legs, glasses perched on her petite nose, a steaming cup of tea cooling on the table to her side.
I also see my parent’s tall, tall glass bookshelf that, to my then-tiny self, seemed to reach to the sky. Top to bottom, those shelves overflowed with a potpourri of science fiction, history, and reference books, many of which, like my dad’s Odd Book of Data, I took with me when I left home.
I see Mr. Black, my seventh and eighth grade English teacher, smiling at me in his dapper suit, neatly trimmed mustache and shiny black shoes. He called me “congenial” and said I had a nice smile. I was surprised and more than very pleased when he asked me to write a column for the middle school paper. I had never thought of writing—or teachers—as anything particularly special before that.
I see my tenth grade English teacher, Mr. Lombard, a lean, graying, distinguished fellow, rolling up his sleeves and, with relish, teaching me words that I loved (and still love) to roll on my tongue: ubiquitous, epitome, zenith.
And although her name is forgotten, I also see my eleventh grade English teacher, a cute, pixie of a lady with flowery, colorful skirts, a bob haircut and a warm, friendly smile: she is reading my Beowulf poem aloud to the class. I am so proud! After all, this is honors English; and I am surrounded by so many senior hunks! She even wanted to submit my poem to a literary publication, although my sieve of a memory doesn’t recall if it ever happened.
In hindsight, it's not surprising that my high school report card, which my mother unearthed when I went back to college, is heavily peppered with Cs alongside a smattering of As, Bs and Ds—the As and Bs in English classes, the rest in just about everything else. When I first saw my report card again after all those years, I was embarrassed; I thought I had been a better student than that.
And now, in reflection, I also recognize why I so enjoyed and tend to idolize Professor Harrison, my first period professor in my first semester going back to school after a ten-year hiatus. It was because he, a proud, confident English professor who obviously loved his subject, brought me back to those happy memories from long ago—good times with good books and good grades, being praised and recognized by passionate, confident, happy English teachers who seemed to take a liking to me.
I also suspect that these happy circumstances are why I eventually turned from accounting to English to become a professional writer with a desire to teach and positively impact others, many years—and many detours—later.
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