I always admired Mr. O’Brien, my grade 11 English teacher. Affable, engaging, and blessed with a quirky sense of humour, he could make Sir Gawain gallop through the not-so-feudal streets of Philadelphia. I think I became an English major, largely because of him.
From my 17 year-old perspective, Mr. O’Brien had just one flaw; it took him a long time to grade and return tests and papers. It may have been the “grade grubber” in me — not a particularly attractive trait I’ll admit — but I found this tardiness frustrating.
Many years later at a teachers’ conference, I happened to bump into Mr. O’Brien, and I was surprised and delighted that he remembered me. When I pointed out that he had taught me back in 1976, he rolled his eyes and laughed.
“Oh, those were crazy days, the mid-70’s. Our kids were small. Teachers’ salaries weren’t then what they are now, so I spent all day Saturday selling real estate and all day Sunday selling insurance.”
Suddenly my adolescent peevishness disappeared, and all I could do was blush inwardly. Self-loathing might be too strong a term, but I developed an instant appreciation for what Walker Percy described as “the great suck of self.”
These days when I occasionally come across a slightly self-involved high school boy, I try to remember how one knucklehead never quite appreciated his teacher’s perspective until 30 years after stumbling out of his class.