I walked into senior high school English class that first semester, my last year before college, not knowing what to expect. Mr Thornburg was incredibly cool looking, if I remember correctly and sometimes I do, in a Jimmy Stewart meets Clint Eastwood kind of way.
But in his teaching we all decided he was more Clint than Jimmy. ( Although we wouldn't have known about Clint Eastwood then, but go with me here. Robert Taylor?)
We were the honors English class, and I'll admit, all these years later, we were used to getting away with anything. Our previous English teachers, in this suburban, well, more exurban, part of Indianapolis had not been the most difficult to please. We'd bang out essays about Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, hardly giving it a thought, and get A's. Nothing memorable. It wasn't getting through.
But when we came into Mr. Thornburg's class, on the blackboard he'd written 1798.. We shrugged. Whatever, no idea what happened in 1798. After saying hello, he told us this was the one date we should never forget, because it was the publication of The Lyrical Ballads, a book of poetry by Wordsworth and Coleridge, and thought of as the beginning of the English romantic movement in literature. He said this every day for a month,
But soon after, we were reading The Faerie Queen and comparing it to CS Lewis. We were reading Hamlet, and getting it, and discussing whether Shakespeare had planned all the clues and themes and parallel constructions . We'd memorize poetry--"...look on my works ye mighty and despair."
Some of us-- began to change.
We read short stories-- The Lottery and that scary one about the island where the bad guy hunted people. And one called Leningen Versus the Ants--is that right?
He told us about dramatic irony, and rhetorical devices and foreshadowing and continuity. And analytical thinking. He fought us to think and compare and imagine. We wore blank armbands on the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in sympathy for the Anglo-Saxons.
He introduced us to Edith Wharton -- but I admit he lost me on Ethan Frome.. Years later, when I tried Edith again and fell in love with everything she wrote, even Ethan, I thought about Mr. Thornburg and all the new worlds he'd opened for us.
And, when it can to writing our "papers"-- is that what you called them-- He was tough! I mean-all that stuff we'd dashed off in previous years so we could be finished with our homework and watch Twilight Zone, wasn't going to fly with Mr. Thornburg.
I remember one kid handed in paper called ?"Hamlet.". I can still hear the derision in Mr Thornburg's voice. ""Oh, really," he said. "And here I thought Shakespeare wrote that." He said a better title--remember this was senior high english--was something like "A brief exposition of the mouse theme in Hamlet."
(Mr. Thornburg was not commercial.)
And when we wrote something particularly egregiously awful, he'd give you a GUG. Yes. He had an actual rubber stamp with big bold font that said GUG. And when we got a GUG, that was not a good thing. GUG meant--"this is so unbelievably awful that I have no words to describe it."
We never leave high school, do we? Sometimes when I write something so egregiously awful that I have no words to describe it, I smile and say GUG, and then thank Mr. T for teaching me to be thoughtful and careful and clear--and to love the written word--and oh, to love writing.
I put him in the acknowledgments of my first mystery. Then thought-uh oh. What if he reads it with his GUG stamp?
Did you have a teacher who made a difference?