honesty, school, teaching, writing

In Memoriam

IMG_8102A few weeks ago I learned that one of my high school English teachers had passed away at age 55. Initially I was shocked; classmates and I exchanged texts and Facebook messages, trying to make sense of this sudden, unexpected loss. Then, just as quickly, the world moved on. I kept meaning to write something about Mr. Rourke, the man who’d taught me reading and writing and critical analysis and intense creativity for three formative years. But here it is, weeks later, a month after his death, a dinosaur’s age in the life of the internet news cycle.

Still, I want to write something.

My school is small: there were fifty-some girls in my graduating class. We knew all of the teachers by name, even if we didn’t have them, and chances were we’d probably take a class with them at some point. By chance I took English with Mr. Rourke for three years, and that might have continued had he not decided to leave teaching at the end of my junior year. He wanted to focus on his own writing, and he eventually took a job at the Greater Cleveland Food Bank. At the time his decision shook my academic plans to the core. I’d bided my time until I could apply for an independent study in creative writing to take my senior year, and I planned to ask Mr. Rourke to be my faculty adviser. In a school as small as ours, could I find another teacher who knew enough about creative writing to work with me?

Mr. Rourke was the first Serious Person I showed my writing to, someone who wasn’t a friend or family member. I knew he wrote himself, knew he spent time dissecting literature to find out how it ticked. Approaching him to ask if he’d look over my adolescent work was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. (I’m sure I blushed beet-red.)

I still remember meeting with him on the soft couches in the main Upper School hallway, after he’d had a chance to read my work. Other girls sat nearby, studying or talking, so we kept our voices low. He told me what was working and what wasn’t working in the early chapters I’d shared with him. My main character had just lost her parents and was about to start working in the mansion of an eccentric millionaire (my historical fiction roots run deep), but her emotional landscape was lacking.

“It needs more pain,” he said. It was the first time I realized that good writing isn’t just about an exciting plot, that it also needs an emotional connection tethering the reader to the story.

He was a wildly creative teacher in the classroom, infusing life into books I never thought I’d understand. William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is still one of the most memorable pieces I’ve ever read, and that’s all down to the way Mr. Rourke taught it. Alone I found it incomprehensible, my first introduction to stream-of-consciousness narration, but in the classroom Mr. Rourke helped us draw connections between characters, make sense of the Compson family history, see the beauty and the tragedy in Faulkner’s novel. A final creative project that year gave us free rein to explore one of the texts from the curriculum, so I wrote a screenplay based on part of The Sound and the Fury, an exercise that taught me more about the benefits of close reading than any regular assignment ever could.

In the classroom Mr. Rourke talked at length about the books we were studying, the techniques the authors chose, and if we were very good he’d also tell us wild stories from his adolescence, often complete with diagrams drawn on the chalkboard. (I wish I could remember the annotated story about jumping over the turnstiles of the Rapid Transit.) He played us music and movies we’d never seen before, and as a parting gift when he left teaching, my class compiled a playlist of songs for him. In response he gave us a CD of his favorite songs, ranging from “Vegetables” by the Beach Boys to XTC’s “All You Pretty Girls.” I still have it, and sometimes B and I listen to it in the car.

The English teacher who joined our school after he left turned out to be a writer herself, and a friend of his, and so my independent study unfolded just as beautifully–perhaps more so–as I hoped it would. She taught me about mentor texts and writing techniques that perhaps I wouldn’t have learned from Mr. Rourke. I’m forever grateful to her for guiding me in writing my first novella that senior year.

And I’m grateful to her for arranging for me to meet up with Mr. Rourke one more time. At the end of that year, the three of us met at a University Circle coffee shop to talk writing and life. She’d told him about my novella–set in the 1960s, because again, those historical fiction roots run deep–and he’d made two mix tapes of his favorite ’60s songs. I still have those, too, and every now and then I contemplate how to transfer them to a digital format so I can hang on to them even longer. Because who still has a cassette player?

(I do. Yes, really. But it doesn’t work anymore. Hence the digitization.)

I never saw Mr. Rourke again after that, but I thought of him every now and then. I’d check on his blog, think about reaching out to tell him about how my writing life had evolved since high school, and how in large part that evolution was due to his encouragement. But I was still shy, still somewhat in awe of him, and so I didn’t.

I’d write to him once I published my first book. I’d definitely include him in the acknowledgements.

But he passed away, far too soon. And so here I am, writing into the digital void instead.

So I’m telling you all, whoever you are: I am a writer today because Mr. Rourke accepted my writing for the adolescent attempt that it was and told me how to make it better. Because he showed me how reading books I thought I’d never understand could actually teach me a lot about writing. Because he made academic reading and writing fun. Because he led me to the teacher who advised my independent study, and she helped me write and revise my first novella.

I’m still not published. And I don’t know why I was waiting for that arbitrary benchmark to contact him. Because I could have told him all of these things without a copyright page, and as a former teacher, I know how much it can mean to hear from your former students.

Thank you, Mr. Rourke, wherever you are.

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