Acknowledging the Teachers Who Influenced Me

This is the current draft of the Acknowledgements page of Dying With My Mom.

It is impossible to become who you are without other people. My path included some influential teachers in middle and high school.

Robert Woodland was my freshman Advanced Placement composition teacher and his quiet mentoring in writing helped me recognize my latent talent. I learned the importance of patience, flow and rhythm from our times of cross country skiing and later learned the value of patience, flow and rhythm when writing.

One of his assignments was for our class to write an original poem and to find a poem written by someone else that we liked. The poem I wrote was about how amazing it is that an airplane can fly and the poem I selected was the lyrics to Rush’s Tom Sawyer. Woodland gave me a good grade but more importantly, commented, “You are very apparent in this assignment.” He gave me one of my first glimpses into what made me unique.

Chuck Spencer was a physically imposing man and I, along with my classmates, feared him. His command of literature and writing, as well as his standards for students, were at once intimidating and inspirational. I vividly remember the day I walked to my desk to see that I had earned my first A from him on a paper about Thomas Wolf’s Look Homeward, Angel. Earning an A from him was one of my most important high school accomplishments because he didn’t give them out often. He challenged us with great authors — Wolfe, Steinbeck and Faulkner were my favorites — and I gained an appreciation for well-written stories.

Mike Delp was an opinionated and grumpy influence on my life. Delp didn’t care much what people thought of him. He had strong beliefs and was not swayed by lazy arguments. I was drawn to his self-assurance, his lack of need for approval from others, and his strangely humble way of teaching. The most important lesson I learned from Delp was to live and think for myself, which I have done, in a not insignificant part because he taught me that I don’t have to be a part of the herd. The second most important lesson I learned from him is that it doesn’t matter at all how hard one works. What matters is the quality of the final product. He never accepted “I worked hard on this paper,” as a substitute for quality. His demand for quality was a critical force in shaping my thinking skills and writing voice.

I have always sucked at the mechanics of math calculations, even though the concepts of math interest me. In sixth grade, my math skills plunged to such a level that I was placed in a remedial class taught by Bill Bedford. During the second week of his class , Mr. Bedford told me to stay when the bell rang for the next period. Assuming that I was in trouble yet again, my classmates taunted me and I dreaded yet another conversation with an adult who was not happy with my behavior.

Mr. Bedford told me that I didn’t belong in his class. He was certain that I could master the material and his goal was for me to quickly complete the remedial content so that I could move to a normal math class. He sacrificed the benefit he would gain from his student aide by assigning her to help me through the material. She became one of my best friends and we walked together when we graduated. I wish I could say that Mr. Bedford’s sacrifice resulted in arousing the epic math skills dormant within but alas, I still suck at math.

There were other teachers who helped me navigate the difficulties of my childhood. They were able to see through my disruptive behavior and challenged me less in academics and more in the development of humor, articulating my ideas and working to my potential.

Eva Strempeck was my middle school music teacher. Though I frequently interrupted her class with jokes and silly antics, Mrs. Strempeck loved my sense of humor and helped develop it. She entrusted me with her husband’s Firesign Theater albums, which I thought were hilarious. While other teachers were exasperated by my disruptive behavior, she saw through the disruptions and encouraged me to develop my humor. It is hard to overstate her influence on my life.

What little Spanish I know I learned from my Nancy Lemmon. Her primary influence on me, though, was to practically force me to be on the high school forensics team. I wrote an essay in Delp’s class that was a serious yet sardonic take on the Bill of Rights and it became the basis of my speech. My first season of competition was in 1983, when I won first place in the Original Oratory category in district competition. I competed in regionals and placed fourth.

These teachers could have treated me like just another annoying, disruptive kid but each of them built something inside of me that I still carry today: a sense of humor, a love for ideas, confidence to believe and say what I want, discipline to shape words into the right message, and a desire to excel not by besting others but by besting myself. I am deeply grateful for their influence on my life.