Twenty-five years ago, on my first day of seventh grade, I walked into my assigned English class to discover a strange sight. A middle-aged man with thinning blond hair was sitting behind the teacher’s desk puffing away on a piece of chalk. Immediately two things were clear to me: 1) He was dying for a smoke, and 2) He wasn’t bothering to hide this from a roomful of seventh graders. This made him the most interesting teacher I’d had all day.
All day long, I’d been meeting my teachers—some were strict, others more laidback—but all of them seemed generally colorless the way most adults seem to kids. It was impossible to imagine any of them feeling the heights of anger or despair I felt daily over my parents’ ongoing divorce, of feeling powerless or alone or different. But this man smoking his chalk seemed like maybe, just maybe, he could understand.
His name was Mr. Hubner and he would be my English teacher for both seventh and ninth grades. He would introduce me to Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, to James Baldwin and the blues, to Holden Caulfield and Hamlet. He would be the first openly gay adult in my life. He was also openly sarcastic (mostly at the expense of lazy students), openly grumpy (he was constantly trying to quit smoking) and openly critical (not only of our essays, which he picked apart in class, but of the books we were assigned to read).
But when he taught his favorite writers, the ones whose photos he enshrined on the back wall of his classroom, he gave the sense that he was sharing something deeply personal, something that could stem the flood of alienation and pain that came with growing up.
There are teachers who teach you how to read, and then there are teachers who teach you how to find yourself through reading. It was no coincidence that I was in Mr. Hubner’s class when I decided to become a writer. It was ninth grade and my parents’ divorce was finally reaching its bitter end. I had stopped talking to my father and had moments when I fantasized about being dead. In the midst of this, Mr. Hubner assigned us a lengthy report on an artist of our choosing. At first, I figured I would pick John Steinbeck, my favorite writer, whose dust bowl novels reflected my own bleak mood. But Mr. Hubner, who preferred the Southern novelists, nudged me toward Flannery O’Connor instead.
I still remember writing that report, the tower of O’Connor themed books stacked up beside my old Macintosh, the photos of peacocks (O’Connor’s favorite animal), which I assembled to decorate the cover. As it turned out, O’Connor was a wonderful antidote to adolescent misery. She was deeply eccentric and undeniably tragic (she would die at age 39 of lupus) but unapologetic and sharp-tongued. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd,” she wrote. “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”
In short, she felt very much like a fellow traveler. As I meticulously wrote that report, I realized that my life too—the difficult parts, especially—wasn’t meaningless. It was material.
What a writer, especially a young one, needs most is an appreciative audience. Mr. Hubner could be critical and grumpy but his praise, when it came, was genuine and effusive. Long before I ever received a positive review as a novelist, I still remember the heart-thumping thrill I felt when Mr. Hubner returned that Flannery O’Connor report. The A-plus on the back wasn’t just a grade; it was a validation. I was a writer. And I was going to be okay. Katherine Marsh is the author of JEPP, WHO DEFIED THE STARS (Hyperion, October 2012). An only child, she spent a lot of her youth reading, trading stories with her grandmother who had run a bar in New York, and listening to her mother's frequent astrological predictions. After surviving high school and graduating from Yale, Katherine spent a decade as a magazine journalist, including as a reporter for ROLLING STONE and an editor at THE NEW REPUBLIC. Her first book, THE NIGHT TOURIST, won an Edgar Allen Poe Award for mystery writing, and was followed by the sequel THE TWILIGHT PRISONER. Katherine lives in Washington D.C. with her husband and two children. Find out more about Katherine at: www.katherinemarsh.com or follow her on Twitter: @MarshKatherine.
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