In eighth grade I was lucky enough to have a brilliant young teacher named Delmar Wright for honors English. Mr. Wright sported tortoise-shell glasses, wore neatly checkered sport jackets, drove an MG and had three young children: Sean O'Casey Wright, Thomas Carlyle Wright and Emily Dickinson Wright. To my 13-year-old self he seemed as wonderfully exotic as his Waspy first name, for my hometown was a classic Ohio rust-belt city, home to Slavs and Italians, Puerto Ricans and blacks, a place of washed-out wooden houses, with grit and sulphur in the air and the kind of desolation we associate with Edward Hopper paintings. I had long loved to read--the Hardy Boys, Tarzan, The Hound of the Baskervilles--but Mr. Wright was the first person I'd ever met who seemed deeply, personally excited about novels and poems and stories and plays. He was probably the most influential teacher in my life.
I don't suppose he was then more than 30. But he possessed dash, the kind of suavity and ease that I instinctively admired, perhaps knowing that such nonchalant grace would never be mine. His tenor voice was precise, his sentences grammatical, his diction crisp yet lilting, even musical. When he spoke, I listened closely to the way he carefully chose each word and shaped his phrases; later in the day, on the long walk home from school, I would practice repeating his sentences while trying to mimic his pronunciation. The classicist William Arrowsmith used to insist that a good teacher should embody his subject--literally--and it was obvious to everyone that Mr. Wright loved the English language and its literature.
He was, naturally enough, unconventional, as the best teachers always are. In his late afternoon classes we would often spend the entire hour just reading aloud. We would go round the desks, each student speaking as distinctly, as dramatically as possible a paragraph or two from some mysterious, richly ambiguous story--Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," perhaps, or E.M. Forster's allegory of time and brotherhood, "The Other Side of the Hedge." Once we devoted most of a week to arguing about the meanings in E.B. White's little classic, "The Door.` I see now that Mr. Wright must have chosen such modern parables just because they are so deliberately, even heavy-handedly symbolical and thus ideal for heated classroom discussion. To this day I recollect my dazzled first reading of the White story--in which human life is compared to that of a rat trapped in a maze:
"I remember the door with the picture of the girl on it (only it was spring), her arms outstretched in loveliness, her dress (it was the one with the circle on it) uncaught, beginning the slow, blinding cascade--and I guess we would all like to try that door again, for it seemed like the way and for a while it was the way. . . "
Some periods Mr. Wright would saunter in with a portable record player under his arm, set it up and then pull the blinds shut to block out the afternoon sun. In the resulting half-light he would carefully place an LP on the turntable, while we would all hush with expectation. Once the needle picked up the vinyl clamor of a great battle, fought apparently during a thunderstorm and followed by a short, spooky silence. Then frightening, other-worldly voices suddenly half-whispered, half-cackled: "When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning or in rain? When the hurly burly's done/ When the battle's lost and won./ That will be ere the sun of sun./ Where the place? Upon the heath/ There to meet with Macbeth." Martial music sounded forth at this point, and the voices chanted in hideous unison: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair. . . By the pricking of my thumbs/ Something wicked this way comes." I shivered with excitement. This was even better than reading "The Wendigo" from Tales to Be Told in the Dark. It was also my introduction to Shakespeare, and made me a fan for life--despite having to sit through some terrible high school productions of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Twelfth Night."
But Mr. Wright was nothing if not up to date. In his class we also listened to the then-recent Broadway recording of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," which we were crazy about because it was both funny and very peculiar; we especially marveled when the slave Lucky was told to speak and he spewed forth a non-stop torrent of naughty and subversive verbiage. In particular, I marveled at the play's final stoically comic lines: Vladimir and Estragon say to each other, "Let's go," while the stage directions read: "They do not move." How could I not love Beckett? Who could resist him? On another day we listened to Basil Rathbone intone, in his most lugubrious voice, "The Tell-Tale Heart," by Edgar Allan Poe. At its hysterical climax, the actor's voice rose to a shriek that echoed down the halls of Hawthorne Junior High, and brought teachers running. I would give much to hear those records again, ideally on a snowy Friday afternoon, while sitting just right of my old friend Tom Mikus and only a few seats away from my beloved Paula Shagovac.
In those days my hometown of Lorain had no bookshops. Department stores all carried a few recent bestsellers next to the children's classics and Bibles, but that was about it--excepting, of course, the thrift shops and Goodwills in which I would as a teenager pick up Agatha Christie's Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Robert Heinlein science fiction stories, Cornell Woolrich's Deadline at Dawn, and even the second printing of the first American edition of Ulysses. Fortunately for me, though, Mr. Wright used to drive to Cleveland one night a week to take a course at Western Reserve University; on his way, he told us, he always stopped at a big bookstore near Terminal Tower and would be delighted to buy any paperbacks we might need. I still own the first three books I asked him to pick up for me: Dale Carnegie's How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (even as a boy I tended to excessive introspection), Thoreau's Walden, and Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone. Carnegie quoted a lot of inspirational verse in his earnest pages, including Kipling's "If," which I duly memorized, vowing always to "fill the unforgiving minute/ with sixty seconds' worth of distance run." The glad-handing author also recommended that people study the Bible, Shakespeare and the Gettysburg Address to improve their diction. So I studied them. In his turn, Thoreau stirred me with his philosophy of life ("Simplify, simplify," "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us"), while providing a model of limpid, no-nonsense Yankee prose. I learned by heart favorite sentences and paragraphs: "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes." "While men believe in the infinite, some ponds will be thought to be bottomless." "If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will with a success unexpected in common hours." I still have my copies of these books, as well as my paperback of The Moonstone. After 35 years, it's probably time to reread that great Victorian mystery-shocker.
I presume we must have studied a little grammar that year (1962), maybe diagrammed a few sentences, but mainly I recall our required reading list: the 14 very eclectic titles Mr. Wright insisted we all know in addition to those we might choose for book reports. Over the course of the year, we swept through Faulkner's The Unvanquished, Vance Packard's The Status Seekers, Harry Golden's Only in America, James Joyce's "The Dead," Gogol's "The Overcoat," Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, James Hilton's Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Glenway Wescott's "The Pilgrim Hawk," Katherine Anne Porter's "Noon Wine," and a half-dozen others, all wonderful. The Orwell was particularly cherished by my classmates, chiefly for the graphic sex scene between Winston Smith and Julia on, I believe, page 113 of the Signet paperback. (It's the sort of detail that sticks in the mind.) Though it's been decades since I read the novel--another book due for revisiting--even now I shudder at the dispiriting final sentences of that grim parable: "He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother." Back then, those simple words came as a revelation: I had never realized that irony could be so brutal.
At the end of the school year, Mr. Wright asked each of us to write a short story. Mine, called "Faster and Faster," was scribbled one Sunday afternoon in my backyard at a picnic table, its author having fled some all too common domestic uproar. Alas, the story never quite worked. In it the unlikeable protagonist--a touch of verismo that I particularly relished--finds himself obsessed with speed, with the desire to go "faster and faster." At its end, our hero, now an experimental jet pilot, simply disappears, presumably into another dimension. It earned me a B. I suppose I had hoped to create a richly allegorical tale about man's hunger for the infinite or something. It didn't really matter. There would be lots of time to improve, since by then it was clear to me that I wanted to spend my life reading and talking about books. To be, insofar as I was able, just like Mr. Wright.
But the following year, having started high school, I saw my favorite teacher only a few times before he moved his family to another state and another job. I remember riding my bike over to his house once, and sitting on his porch to tell him I'd won a scholarship to Oberlin College. He was pleased for me yet then somehow started talking, with obvious wistfulness, about the passage of time. He spoke about the inherent tragedy of having children, of how they had to be willing to abandon you at 18 and go off on their own, else you'd failed in your duty as a parent. Mr. Wright himself looked older, his face already lined. But then he brightened and told me about a Shakespeare course he was looking forward to taking at Ohio State during the summer. As I left, he even gave me a graduation present: a copy of Edwin Arlington Robinson's poems, inscribed with the command: "To Mike, keep reading!" Whenever I turn to "Miniver Cheevy" or "Eros Turannos," I think of that afternoon.
"Keep reading." Seldom, I suspect, has a teacher's injunction been followed so . . . diligently. I have kept reading, yes, and to a large degree because of the example, instruction and character of Mr. Wright. Thank you, sir, wherever you are. I have not forgotten what you taught me.
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is email@example.com.