On McCourt and Mentors

It’s almost fall in southern California, and I can’t help thinking of school (of course, according to my girlfriend, summer ain’t over until the last hundred degree day passes in November). In a way, I miss the buying of books, the planning of school newspapers, and that sort of thing, but in other ways, I am happy to be free of the homework and social anxiety of those years. What I really miss are some of my favorite teachers.

I miss my hippie school and how we were able to call our teachers by their first names. I remember Persis, who in ninth grade gave me a failing grade for my first paper and sent me into a state of shock. Once I got over her style of grading, I began to appreciate the discussion-heavy classes and her introduction to Gilgamesh, Antigone, All Quiet on the Western Front, and much of Shakespeare. I can picture taking notes in Wendy’s Arabic class that I somehow passed (yet I now have no knowledge of anything as simple as the alphabet). There was Susan’s Spanish class, where one morning at an ungodly hour we brought in a potluck, and each member of the class explained the ingredients in Spanish (I made a muy bien Caesar salad). And there was Ernie’s AP Chem class that I miraculously passed. There were college teachers whose classes were supposed to be life-changing, but I always used my high school classes as a reference point, and none of them quite measured up.

And in real life, the now, I miss these mentors, the teachers who encouraged me to write, to learn, to read, to be a nerd and not care.  I miss them because most would never have tolerated me starting this paragraph with an And.

If there is one ingredient I think I lack in my screenwriting career, it’s someone with knowledge of how this thing works: who to contact about queries, when a draft is finished, why my ideas are all wrong. This mentor could give an encouraging word to keep me going, or maybe a piece of advice to save my screenplay. It has nothing to do with success, and it has a lot to do with failure. You need someone to tell you your career isn’t over before it has begun, to prevent you from throwing out that half-finished draft.

It was with a mild amount of envy that I listened to Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man on audio book the other week. You can’t choose when to be born or where to go to school, but those kids lucky enough to write in his classroom must have known they had hit the jackpot. Filled with stories, songs, and jests, always honest, a true practitioner of the craft, McCourt must have convinced a lot of kids to be writers. There’s this quote from student Elizabeth Kadetsky, “I nevertheless left Stuyvesant bragging to everyone I knew about my association with this legendary teacher, despite his utter lack of fame among anyone who hadn’t been his student or one of their parents.” And that’s how I feel about my teachers, the mentors in my life, almost all of whom I have left behind.

You can’t help but laugh at this excerpt from Teacher Man.

6 responses to “On McCourt and Mentors

  1. “I made a muy bien Caesar salad”

    Hee, that made me smile.

    But more seriously, I TOTALLY get what you’re saying about lack of mentorship. I think that’s sorely lacking in the arts nowadays, whereas in the past that apprentice/patron system totally existed! Actually, one of the things I want to do someday is set up a writers’ residence where 2-3 “apprentice” writers can be paired with a “master,” and everyone would live together in a “dorm.” Something like that. (Obviously there’s no point ironing out all the details until it’s a little closer to becoming reality. :P)

  2. I have a few teachers I adore, strangely enough, from grammar school and college, not so much high school. I was actually fortunate enough to avoid crappy math teachers for the most part, which led me to pursuing a Math minor in college. My favorite teacher was a professor that taught a Intro to Lit class that was amazing and a surprising amount of fun. (I actually used his name in a screenplay as an homage.)

    It’s always interesting to think back, about those who you thought did nothing to affect your development, but actually did so much more than you can truly imagine.

  3. There are some teachers I miss, some I don’t.

    I don’t miss my English teachers, because their English was bad.

    I miss my sensitive Spanish teacher, because all he could think of was to get the most out of us without demanding too much, and used to be constantly surprised at himself.

    I miss my Biology / Chemistry teacher from secondary modern school, the way he gave almost everyone a nick name and tried to turn his lessons into games. The same applies to my Physics teacher from that time.

    I also miss my Maths teachers from the fifth to tenth grade. She was a huge fan of The Simpson’s, but then retired, and He taught me the basics of HTML, which quickly turned into my desire for webdesign.

    Our class teacher in elementary school was very kind and beautiful. We, as her class, attended her wedding ceremony, which we did a lot of preparation for.

    Strangely, you start to adore these people, once you realize that you’ll probably never see them again.

  4. Sarah, thanks for the comment. It was always important for me to know that my teachers were human and that they had lives outside the classroom. I had a math teacher who was really into Belle and Sebastian, which was really cool. Of course, we never really talked about this, but it was nice to know he had interests outside calculus.

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