Throughout my (dubiously successful) academic career, English was far and away my favorite subject. Having loved books since I was a child, I always looked forward to completing summer reading lists as a young bookworm, and later to devouring and writing papers about the literary masterpieces my teachers introduced me to. So it may come as a surprise that when I discovered, heading into my junior year of high school, that my English teacher would be John Charles Smith, one of my school’s best-known teachers, my initial response was trepidation, not excitement.
You see, Mr. Smith (or J.C., as he asked his students to call him) was as feared as he was revered. He was known for his impeccable taste in literature and his stellar college recommendation letters, which all but guaranteed a student’s admission to his or her first-choice school, but his standards were exacting and his sharp tongue was legendary, so half-assing his class was simply not an option. (Years later, a girl who had him after I did told me that he gave her an F on her first paper for his class, writing only, “Is English your first language?” (it was) next to the grade.) Thus, it was only natural that I entered his classroom for the first time on red alert.
But once I settled into my seat that first day, and every day to follow, all my apprehension dissipated. Under J.C.’s brilliant tutelage, I journeyed far and wide in my imagination, traveling from the mystical spirit-worlds of Gabriel García Márquez to the existential crises of Franz Kafka’s characters to the emotional anguish of Sethe, the protagonist in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. J.C. not only introduced me to a multitude of universes that were drastically different from my own, but also trained me to analyze them in depth and to pay tribute in my own writing, as eloquently as possible, to those great authors whose works continue to be some of my all-time favorites today.
I still email with J.C. from time to time. He’s nearing retirement now, but he’s still teaching at my alma mater. What I wouldn’t give to be back in his classroom again, listening to him hold forth on magical realism or Shakespeare or film noir. I can barely remember the names of my college professors, but his is burned on my brain.
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