Legendary teachers and brave books

banned books

Sept. 25 was Legendary Teacher Day in Ridgefield.
That’s not quite the same as National Teacher Appreciation Day and Week, the first Tuesday of the first full week in May — which, incidentally, have only gained semi-official status thanks to being declared annual observances by the National Education Association, but not by the U.S. Congress.
In Ridgefield, though, it was the school board that had the good sense to declare a day early in the academic year — not when everybody’s exhausted, itchy for sunshine and dragging toward liberation — for celebrating the great teachers who touched our lives. They invited everyone to post their tributes on Facebook, and school district communications officer Eric Jacobson posted messages for people whose faces aren’t booked.
For example, superintendent Nathan McCann started things off by remembering one Mr. Walter, his 11th grade history teacher at Middlebury Union High School in Vermont, who had served in Vietnam and who expected his students to understand and debate important issues because he wanted them to shoulder the responsibility that comes with living in a democracy. Mr. Walter was a great storyteller, McCann said, and those stories made history and social studies come alive.
And this from assistant superintendent Patsy Boles: “I traveled the world, the jungles of the Africa, the southern swamps of America, the South Pacific and other parts unknown all through the books read aloud by my Grade 4 teacher, Miss Caloury. She captured my imagination … and challenged me to read books that made me think and stretch my reading abilities. My love of reading truly started … with Miss Caloury.”
Read all the Ridgefield teacher tributes at https://www.facebook.com/RidgefieldSchools.
OK, here’s mine. I vividly remember my third grade teacher, Mrs. Von Lunen, all but doing backflips over my careful notetaking and outside reading about astronomy and outer space. I was plenty motivated already, but the excitement of my teacher — who, I will add here, was beautiful and lively and my first major crush — absolutely sent me over the moon.
And here’s also to Mr. Earl Hendler, my high school freshman English teacher, and Mrs. Julia Latzer, who taught high school journalism and creative writing. Mr. Hendler was great at bringing out the humor and the horror — the deep humanity — in what seemed at first like ancient gray bricks by the likes of Shakespeare and Chaucer. And Mrs. Latzer read some of my earliest original writing and gave me perhaps the best practical advice ever: “This part and this part really sing. But this and this, hmm. Can you keep working until the whole thing is up at that same level?”
I saw exactly what she meant. My pride in the strong parts had blinded me to the weak parts. Thirty-plus years later, Mrs. Latzer, I’m still grateful to you for that very straightforward standard — is every little bit of it as good as it should be? — and I’m still trying.
(Full disclosure: I’m the child of public school teachers, the brother of a private music teacher and the husband of a college professor. Teaching has always been deep in the family bones. I’m the only one who got away!)
Banned books week
As I Lay Dying. A Separate Peace. The Catcher in the Rye. All the Harry Potters. Huckleberry Finn. Lord of the Flies. Of Mice and Men. Sophie’s Choice. 1984. To Kill a Mockingbird. And, Ulysses.
That’s just a small smattering of personal favorites drawn from one American Library Association list of classic books that have been challenged or banned. Each one of them made a big impression on me, for one reason or another. They explored utterly foreign parts of human experience and made them utterly familiar to me; or, they explored private little worlds just like mine and demonstrated how universal they really were. They tackled old and new problems from unpredictable, arresting vantage points. More often than not they wound up with ambiguous, messy endings. Just like life itself.
All of which is why they drive some people bonkers, I guess. Great literature, that is to say, great stories, can really get to you — can pull the rug out from under you — can even build a new foundation underneath you.
I’m a little late on this, but Banned Books Week was Sept. 21-27 as declared by the American Library Association. It’s never too late to delve into some tome that’s too often considered too hot to handle. Heck, Wikipedia includes a thorough list of commonly challenged and banned books in the United States, which run the gamut from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer through The Grapes of Wrath to A Wrinkle in Time.
“What really knocks me out,” Holden Caulfield confesses in The Catcher in the Rye, “is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

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