Ms. Woods stared at me with one eyebrow raised and a hand on her hip. She was perplexed. I had presented her with quite the conundrum. “So, let me get this straight,” she said slowly. “You want to transfer out of my class … and into his class?” She said this as if I were requesting to abstain from food for the rest of my life, or move to Antarctica; she clearly thought I was bonkers. “Yes,” I replied. “I’d like to take English from Mr. Harris this year.”
Ms. Woods’ confusion was understandable; Mr. Harris was not a crowd favorite at my high school. Most kids hightailed it out of his classes, not into them. He was inscrutable and intimidating, and he was noticeably unimpressed by most of what came out of the students’ mouths. On my first day with him, the year before, I had been momentarily shocked when he’d told me outright that he disagreed with all my points in class and had prodded me to be more original. More original? What happened to the pat on the back for participating? Up to that point, many of us had been routinely praised for our preteen intellectual prowess (it was advanced English, after all), based largely on the fact that we arrived in the proper classrooms with all limbs intact and knew how to hold pencils. But on that day, perhaps for the first time, we were boring and vague and our arguments were weak. That day, our tiny universes got a little bigger. And I was thrilled.
I became a Mr. Harris devotee, enrolling in his classes all four years of high school. I can’t recall much of the curriculum (aside from the movies Metropolis and Bartleby, starring the always-creepy Crispin Glover, which were so peculiar that I’ll never fully forget them), but the books weren’t the point. He taught us to be better thinkers by challenging us to know our own minds. He disagreed with all of us on everything, almost all the time—and it was electric. Without Mr. Harris, I might have gotten through high school with my precious advanced-English ego intact, but with very little to show for it. A pat on the back for participating has its place, but it’s not where inspiration lies. Thanks to Mr. Harris, I, at least sometimes, get high-fives.
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