In 1949 when I was twenty-one years old I took a creative writing course at the New School in Manhattan taught by Professor Don M. Wolfe. He had been my freshman English teacher at New York University, where I graduated in 1947, just two months shy of my twentieth birthday.
Dr. Wolfe assigned compositions and encouraged us to stretch the use of the language to create imaginative imagery and use muscular words to tell our stories and create our plots and descriptions. He was extremely diligent in his reading of our material. When I would receive one of my compositions back, he wrote his criticisms in red ink scrawls and you felt dead certain that he had read every word. It was through those red scrawls that I interpreted his message. You can write, son. Keep at it. Many students can cite similar experiences, the mentor, the inspiration, the great teacher who took the student under her or his wing and made the crucial difference, who pointed the way to a fulfilling and prosperous career.
In that fateful freshman year, largely due to Dr. Wolfe’s inspiration (of which he was surely unaware) I decided to be a writer of fiction, changed my major to English Literature, gloried in the study of the extraordinary western canon of authors and have since then pursued a lifetime of obsessive composition of novels, short stories, essays and poems through every imaginable phase of rejection, insult, deprecation, praise, acceptance, and a moment or two of lionization.
As we move deeper into the twenty-first century, I’ve been fishing around for the most ignored, the most threatened, the most neglected and unsung heroes and heroines of our angry, divisive and dysfunctional communities and there is one noble and dedicated breed who do not normally show up on our national radar but are deserving of our most heartfelt special praise and gratitude. They are our English teachers, the rearguards of our intellectual life, holding firm under great odds.
As someone inspired and sustained by a long list of English teachers from elementary school to college and beyond, I owe a deep debt of gratitude to my English teachers who have introduced me to the wonders of the written word and armed me with the tools, skills, insight, and encouragement needed to pursue a most satisfying and creative lifetime career in literature.
Acknowledgment of a teacher’s impact is crucial. I dedicated my novel The Casanova Embrace to Dr. Wolfe. It reads, “To Don M. Wolfe who ignited the flame.” We don’t know what someone thinks of us until we tell them. Don’t keep your gratitude a secret. It will brighten a teacher’s day to know that her or his efforts weren’t in vain. That they made an impact.
In an age where the societal perception of the “uselessness” of liberal arts has become all too common, I worry that this noble band of brothers and sisters and the quintessential subject they teach are at risk of obsolescence.
English teachers and professors deserve special praise for plying their talents to educate our children and young adults in the pursuit of literature, grammar, and the glories of the written and spoken word, for instilling our offspring with the values, wisdom and beauty that come to us through the beauty and glory inherent in our great works of literature.
Working writers should volunteer to visit English classrooms for one or multiple sessions. It would be an extremely valuable experience to students who are noodling the possibility of writing as a career path. Hearing from someone firsthand and benefiting from their real-world experiences is a great resource. I taught creative writing at New York University for a semester. It was a mutually rewarding experience. On that note, anyone who has majored in English and gone on to implement those related skills and knowledge is also qualified to pay a visit.
While I am not advocating that such commercially marketable subjects like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics not be vigorously pursued, ignoring bedrock principles of written communication and the wisdom and insight available in works of literature is treacherous. It leaves us profoundly ignorant of the real meaning not only of a life well lived but of our understanding of ourselves and our fellow inhabitants of this planet.
Thankfully, they are preserved and perpetuated by a hardy band of teachers who have chosen as their life’s work the perpetuation of those subjects that come under the traditional scholastic venue of “English.”
I might be tempted to use some timeworn clichés about the barbarians at the gates or such homilies that man does not live by bread alone, but I doubt they would penetrate the well-meaning pubahs of the education establishment who seem to be ignoring an essential ingredient of the truly educated.
In the writing video Writing to Learn on Tch, which applies to all grades and all subjects, Andrea Culver, 9th Grade Pre-AP English 1 says, “When we Write to Think, that’s when you’re organizing your own thoughts. What the students really get out of these kinds of activities is they’re able to process the information in a way that’s going to make them retain it.” This really resonates with me. Not only is it another example of the advancements that English teachers are making with students who are interested in all kinds of activities and subjects, but it is a major key to unlocking what we have within us.
Being a teacher of “English” at any level is a profession of the highest order and worthy of enormous praise. What they do might not be conventionally thought of as providing most students with fuel for the pocketbook but that is to miss the point. Their dedication to instilling the values and wisdom that come to us through our great works of literature is fundamentally more sublime, offering a lifetime treasure trove for the soul, the most valuable gift that a teacher can provide a student as he/she navigates life.
So hats in the air in celebration of English teachers who teach and maintain the standards of literacy and literature in a world that is increasingly indifferent to such pursuits. I salute them all.
As featured on Teaching Channel here