I hated English (the class, not the language) for most of my academic life, up until I was about 16/17 years old. And when I say hate, I don’t mean in the way kids “hate” having to go to bed, or “hate” the overall idea of studying. I mean, I fucking hated English.
Despite the fact that I’d been consuming novels like they were slices of pizza since the day I learned how to read, I was still a math/computer guy all through Elementary, Middle, and most of high school. Which is to say that I was much happier sitting in a classroom zoned out doing algebra equations than sitting in another classroom discussing the merits of Shakespeare’s use of onomatopoeia (seriously, I don’t give a shit about Shakespeare’s use of onomatopoeia)
Prior to my junior year, I associated English class with boring texts, the over-analysis of those boring texts, tedious grammar lessons and an English teaching population that generally and openly hated us illiterate ingrates.
That is until fall semester of 11th grade, when I stepped into Mrs. Davis’s classroom.
Mrs. Davis was a small energetic Jewish woman, around her late 40’s/early 50’s (I’m thinking female Larry David with a full head of hair). By time I arrived in her class Mrs. Davis already had a multitude of local nicknames, all playing off some variation of the words crazy, spaz, or psychopath. Add a few expletives before and after and you get the point.
And while I admit that I did my fair share of laughing at these juvenile comments, I also admit that I was always fascinated by Mrs. Davis and her brazen ability to express her love for English to us day in and day out.
Through this energetic approach, Mrs. Davis singlehandedly changed my opinion of English academics, specifically the craft of writing. Something I never could’ve admitted back then (every teenager has a reputation to uphold, even if it’s just their reputation with themselves) but which I’ve happily admitted since.
I’ve said all of this before, even nominated Mrs. Davis as my mentor twice–once when I won a dean’s award my second year in college, and again after winning a creative writing award during my fourth year–citing her as my biggest influence within the English major. But I never really knew what exactly it was that kept her in the forefront of my thoughts throughout the years, that consistently brings me back to mentioning her name every time somebody asks me that inevitable question: “when did you realize you wanted to be a writer?”
The basic answer to that question doesn’t involve Mrs. Davis, of course. My writing career’s a result of a series of events that opened my eyes to the reality of living a life without a single passion, events that forced me to decide between a future with or without a purpose.
But at the core of every motivation is always a single person who sparked the personal revelation. And Mrs. Davis is that person for me, not so much because of what she taught, but primarily because of her (admittedly eccentric) teaching methods.
I remember sitting in Mrs. Davis’s classroom that year, day after day, watching my classmates fall asleep or snicker at her animated behavior. Hands flailing, eyes bugged, mouth open wide as she exclaimed everything, spit flying across the room with every hand clap and table smack and emphatic finger stab at the board, chalk dust floating like a shroud of smoke around her head.
Talking about Catcher in the Rye, you’d think Mrs. Davis knew Holden Caulfield personally. Reading lines of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn out loud, you could almost believe she was a direct descendant of Mark Twain, that she was promoting her family legacy right there in her classroom at Miami Killian Senior High.
Talking about grammar, she broke it down from the complicated explanations in the book to its most simplistic core, and looked happy as shit doing it.
In all actuality, I’m pretty sure Mrs. Davis was a little crazy. I remember one day in particular when the side-talking and delinquent antics of my classmates reached a fever pitch and Mrs. Davis broke down, straight up went off on us; a tirade that left the entire room dead silent, everybody sitting straight up in their seats like we’d been transplanted to a 1950’s classroom and promptly been smacked in the face with a meter stick.You could tell then that she took all of this–all of us–personally (you could also tell the dozen or so times she went off on us after that…kinda was her thing). That our lack of attentiveness wasn’t just an affront to the literary legends we were dismissing nonchalantly, but a direct sign of disrespect towards her, the woman tasked with making us understand.
Which is why she’s being mentioned right here, right now.
Catcher in the Rye is, to this day, one of my favorite novels ever. I’ve read it several times throughout my life, and it’s had a different effect on me every single time (high school: “Holden totally gets it!”; College: “This dude whines a lot.”; Post-college: “Holy crap this kid is irresponsible as shit.”) and is still one of the novels I cite most often as the most influential for me as a writer.
But I also truly believe that Holden Caulfield and his adventures through New York City wouldn’t have had nearly the effect they had on me if it hadn’t been for the overzealous nature of the woman teaching me how to read between the lines.
Which brings me to my point: I am a man driven by enthusiasm. Mrs. Davis’s enthusiasm, her genuine love for literature and the English language, came through in everything she did and said. And she saw something in me that year, pushed me to do more than I ever had in an English course up until that point.
If I didn’t turn in an assignment, she made sure to ask me why, and gave me a chance to make it up (for half credit) if I just showed some effort, showed her that I cared.
If I said something in class that was particularly on point–underlined a specific literary device, or made a remark on the effectiveness of some author’s writing structure–she praised me, encouraged me, motivated me.
If I approached her to ask about an interesting section in a book, she would be almost disappointed when she had to cut the conversation short because her next class was coming in.
It’s this mentality I remember most when I walk into my own classrooms these days, that enthusiasm for the material. I understand because I feel it too, that unrestricted passion for writing and literature that I hope seeps through into my lectures, no matter how much I try to hide it behind the layer of leftover high school cynicism I’ve been steadily chipping away at for the past fourteen years.
I’m a book worm, and so was Mrs. Davis. Book worms love to talk about all things literary. At times, I almost feel a bit funny that I call what I do my job, since acting on and discussing all things literary is something I like to do in my personal time anyways, for free (though I do like to assess the situation first; not gonna walk into a night club with my boys and start talking about the literary and cultural merits of Junot Diaz‘s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, while everybody else is yelling “Shots!” every two minutes and downing pickle backs until they pass out).
That need for enthusiasm pervades every aspect of my life, not just my career. Every day I wake up looking for the people, places and events that will touch that special chord in my brain, the part of my psyche that runs off raw emotion and which society forces us (especially men) to keep tempered 99% of the time.
I wake up wanting that and seeking that, and it’s honestly what keeps me waking up each morning: that hope that today I will find something that makes me feel.
Writing and literature do that for me, among other things. It obviously did for Mrs. Davis too. I’m pretty sure she’s retired right now, though I don’t know for sure. I was too strong-headed during my teenage years to admit that an adult other than my parents had impacted me significantly, so I never kept in touch. But I like to believe regardless that Mrs. Davis knew exactly what she was doing for me and so many other students in her classes. Either way, I’d like to thank her again, right here, for opening my eyes.
Everybody should find the thing that makes them spaz, that makes them act psychotic, that brings out the crazy in them.
Find that thing, then embrace it. It may be the only thing that reveals who you truly are.