Dan Schwartz: Great teachers make a world of difference
Updated: November 15, 2010, 11:26 AM
I wasn’t the class clown, but I had my moments. Most of the time I was bored gourdless in school. Then early in 10th grade, I was going through the motions of learning when a teacher passed out some dittos of Robert Frost poems. After sniffing the dittos — what made those things smell so good? — the teacher asked me to read one aloud, and after a couple of lines I began doing an impression of Frost.
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” I began. “And I don’t care! I’m a cranky old man!”
The class went nuts. “That’s enough, Dan.”
I continued until “I doubted if I should ever come back,” at which point I rechanneled Frost and added, “I can’t come back! I’m Frosty the poem man!”
After more laughter, the teacher asked, “May we continue, Dan?”
Fearful of a referral, I continued on until “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by — so try and catch me coppers!”
I apologized, but I’d been conditioned to expect punishment. My classmates had been conditioned to stare and see how I’d react to that punishment. The teacher simply asked, “You don’t like Frost very much, do you?”
“Uh, not necessarily. It’s just we’re kind of sick of him. We read him every year. Sorry I made fun of your favorite poet.”
She s-l-o-w-l-y walked to the back row. Teachers used to hit students in those days. Actually, they still do in less-enlightened states like Texas and Florida.
Instead of hitting me, she handed me more dittos. “I think you’ll like these better.”
They smelled the same, but on the way back to her desk she said, “Frost is not my favorite poet. William Butler Yeats is.”
I breathed easier and thought, “Great. Who the hell is William Butler Yeats?”
The poems she gave me were from “A Coney Island of the Mind” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I read them and was hooked. I had rediscovered reading.
I began hanging out with other readers and trading paperbacks. They recommended works by other writers. In biology class, I’d prop my textbook on my desk to hide and read novels. This probably explains my biology grades, but by then I knew no matter what else I did in life, I wanted to read and maybe write. I even read Yeats.
Years later, my brother Matt sent me a postcard. “I found this cool bookstore in San Francisco. It’s run by a guy named Larry who says he’s a poet. Ever heard of him?” Matt had stumbled upon City Lights Bookstore. It’s owned by Ferlinghetti.
A few years after that, I attended a conference of the National Council of Teachers of English in San Francisco. Most of the sessions were great, but I do recall one where a teacher tried to convince us Frost’s “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening” was really about Santa Claus.
Matt kidnapped me from the conference. Without disclosing our destination, he walked me over to City Lights. Ferlinghetti wasn’t there that day, but I did get some books and my picture taken in front of the store.
The next day I was walking through the lunch-rush traffic when I thought I recognized someone. She was well past us when it dawned on me. I took a chance.
“Dr. Willert?” I hollered. She began walking back through the human tide. “How could you tell it was me?
We passed in a split second!” “Great teachers stand out in a crowd.”