Our Reading Lives

The Everlasting Magic of English Teachers

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While we at the Riot take some time off to rest and catch up on our reading, we’re re-running some of our favorite posts from the last several months. Enjoy our highlight reel, and we’ll be back with new stuff on Monday, July 11th.

This post originally ran February 26, 2016.


The first English teacher I really loved died recently. My mom sent me a picture of the obituary that ran in the local newspaper, because somehow, despite my teen angst, she knew how much I’d loved this teacher. I had to leave my desk at work and try not to cry. I called a friend who also loved her, who said she was just telling someone a story about how she can’t spell the word “vicious” without thinking of the time the teacher reenacted a cheerleading routine she saw, in which, of course, they spelled out V-I-C-I-O-U-S.

She was that teacher who made a fool of herself to make class fun, and she was so, so wise. She stormed into class one day, wearing a black robe, and stood atop her desk to recite A Modest Proposal. Without warning us. Yikes.

Her syllabus is still solid in my mind. We read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, and The Scarlet Letter in her class. The biggies. But I also remember the books I read throughout that school year in between classes — Blue Like Jazz, Prozac Nation, Twilight — as if they were part of the course reading.

My time in her class was special. It was one of the first times I realized the word business was maybe a thing I could do. That’s why everything I read that year has stayed with me. It was a weird sort of enlightenment.

In college, I did my best to thank the professors who meant anything to me. For some, the works we read together stick to my memories of them more than anything else. The one who said “Chaucer reminds us it’s OK to laugh at fart jokes” after we read The Miller’s Tale. The one who loved Edith Wharton and could practically recite The Age of Innocence to us. The one who shared Alice Walker’s To Hell with Dying, who demanded we all shake our fists and yell that refrain at his funeral. He’d just told us about his terminal cancer.

I wrote to one professor about how a short story we read made me reevaluate my family life. His response: “Your comments/observations mean a great deal to me, and I’m glad what we read together informed your personal life — as all good literature can if we allow it to.”

And there it is. The reason English teachers have the most profound influence on us. Literature has so much power, especially when it’s something we never would have picked up on our own. Teachers hold this power in their hands and share the wealth.

On the first day of that high school English class, the teacher shook everyone’s hand. On the last, she said we could upgrade to a hug. I went for the hug. I’m glad I did.