On Influential Teachers and the Ever-Influential Richard Cory

Hey there folks,

My favorite teachers were those men and women who treated their students like humans. Not as little sponges ready to absorb information and be able to recite it at some future date, but those educators who put themselves on our level so that we might better be able to understand and perform to their exacting standards. Those teachers who worked us like dogs, but treated us as people. Those instructors who were so knowledgeable and passionate about the subject you couldn’t help but become infected by their enthusiasm. Those beacons of Hope in the endless sea that is public education; those foundations for achieving greatness; those brilliant souls who worked tirelessly, never complained, and pushed you ever onward on the path to self-enlightenment.

I attended New Mexico Military Institute for my high school years, skipping out on my hometown, not out of malice or for discipline reasons, but for a jumpstart to something different. Here, I thought, I can achieve greatness.

I certainly didn’t achieve greatness (though I did attain a certain level of infamy in the English department for my brazen shenanigans), but I was put on the straight and narrow by a number of my instructors.

Then-Captain Gallagher was my Freshman History teacher, and terrifying as that man was, he sparked this unquenchable thirst to learn more about the past, the better able to address and conquer the future. Enthusiastic doesn’t even begin to describe this man; how he sprang about the room during his lectures, always on the go, and always with his arms flailing to emphasize the importance of this or that in history! A metronome, he never stopped in his duties, and he never tired. Infectious; yes. The man was infectious with his desire to share knowledge and expand upon history.

Thus a passion for history was born.

Then-Major Stewart-Smith was my Freshman English teacher and my Drama Mama for four years. She hoodwinked me into joining the Drama Troupe for she saw my potential as an actor and one with a mask in need of shedding. I have always been a professional smartass, but this woman took my biting tongue and turned it into a force for good – for the stage. Where before I was acting to suppress emotion, she taught me how to act to express emotion.

Thus a thespian was set loose.

Then-Major Lehmann was my German professor for all four years, and though I was a miserable little shit in his class, the comradery he showed to us – mere children – took me by surprise. Ne’er had I e’er had a professor who took such a keen, genuine delight in our well-being – that of our friends and families too – and who routinely kept his patience despite my worst intentions. You could talk to the man about anything, knowing your secrets now became his. He was like a kindly uncle to us – stern when necessary, but good-humored and better natured.

Thus a desire to be human was nurtured.

The most profound influence upon me as a person and a scholar was my Junior year English teacher: Dr. Toland. My brothers groan in despair when I mention his name (indeed, I’m sure a number of former cadets reading this shirked in the slightest bit of terror merely seeing it) for the man was renowned for his difficult classes, uncompromising attitude toward understanding, and his constant pushing for deeper critical thinking. A Renaissance man, he was beyond brilliant to my youthful innocence, and every word he spoke in his distinct, scholarly voice resonated in the cockles of my heart. The insight the man shared with us, the lengths he would push us when writing or analyzing, that utterly insatiable desire to see his charges outdo themselves – this man set me on the path of knowledge.

And thus, an English scholar was formed.

After NMMI I briefly attended Texas Christian, a festering cesspool of self-entitled white pricks that was Christian in name only. Amidst my foray to ROTC, I met LTC John Agor, the Professor of Military Science at the time (and I man I’ve been trying to track down ever since), who was equally stern father figure and the eternal optimist. “You are an excellent writer,” he once told me (right after a well-deserved ass chewing), “and your sarcasm truly inspires me. I look forward to your first book.” Despite my shortcomings and inability to conform to the military lifestyle, the man never gave up on me. Where the other cadre saw me as a nuisance and smartass, LTC Agor always believed that I would do good things. Even as he rightfully punished me time and again for my transgressions, he never stopped doubting that I would succeed.

I hope to join their ranks one day.

I’ve a board – a sheet of butcher paper, really – titled What Do You Want to Learn? Ideally, kids will put honest remarks on there about things they’re interested in learning, and no subject is off limits. Someone had written, “I want to learn about poetry that actually matters.” That one haunted me for a long time for we oft think poetry is little more than confusing Old English or obscure thoughts and ideas hidden behind clever words and phrases. Indeed, how can kids hope to relate to abstract concepts engulfed in figurative language?

“No, fuckhead, it’s a simile. Not a metaphor.”

Today we read and dissected Richard Cory by Edwin Arlington Robinson, a poem I was first introduced to by Dr. Toland oh so many years ago. A brilliant poem, simplistic in its execution but uncompromisingly powerful in its message: we are all human and we all suffer. I felt it apt for a modern 21st century audience.

Go on. Go read it. I’ll wait.

The mention of suicide in a high school classroom is a taboo topic for the kids were initially hesitant about discussing such things. To many, it was simply a sad fact of Life we’re not meant to understand: why bring up the past? Why dwell on sorrow?

I told the kids we all have Richard Corys in our lives; indeed, we are all Richard Cory at one point. Many kids throughout the day shed silent tears, excused themselves for a drink or the bathroom, or were unusually quiet – thousand-yard stares –  as I brought up the death of one of their peers over summer. A very bright girl, I only talked to her a few times over the course of the semester (she was in the other English class as a Freshman), but I was impressed by her desire for knowledge and her bookwormish habits. Occasionally she would have lunch in my classroom and we would talk about the latest book she was reading. She was always reading.

When I heard of her passing, I was bereaved: why the good ones?

As we talked about suicide and the implications within the poem (that we all wear masks concealing our true selves), I challenged the kids to think of their own Richard Corys. One young man – a brilliant smartass – was mum as he gazed into the back of his comrade’s head. “Damn, Mr. Bruelhart,” he said, “you tore me up there. This one, this poem, really hits home. I had a…” he trailed off. We shared silence together for whomever was in his Life, his very own Richard Cory.

One girl asked why we didn’t talk about such things in school – why don’t we talk about suicide in the classroom? How can we, this nation suffering from a suicide epidemic, be silent in our facilities of knowledge about a very real and very dangerous problem? Why do we let our Richard Corys suffer in silence, dismiss their claims as teenage angst, and offer little recourse beyond “sucking it up” or “it’ll get better?”

I’m no psychologist – merely one of my many jack-of-all-trades hobbies and fascinations – but I think I’m pretty good at making older literature relevant to a modern audience. Making it relatable is one of the many hurdles an English teacher must master for his charges, and few things are more relatable to a captive teenage audience than suicide. The discussions were entirely serious today, filled with probing questions and critical thinking, as my classes attempted to discover why Richard Cory – the man who had it all – would go home and put a bullet in his brain. Modern examples – Robin Williams, Chester Bennington, Kurt Cobain, 13 Reasons Why – were related and compared to this old poem.

Few things hit closer to home than death.

Memento Mori

After school, one of my charges dropped by to share. I listened to her for over an hour as she talked about the poem and the impact today’s lesson had on her. She related how she had no one to talk to: parents who don’t take her seriously, friends who don’t want to talk about such things, counselors who try and sign her up for happy pills. It was an exhaustive list of people who simply wouldn’t listen to a child trying to understand the world around her. Again, I’m no psychologist, and I reminded her as such. “Why me,” I asked her.

“Because I trust you,” she said. “You listen.”

One boy wants to be a professional writer, but his father attempts to literally beat the notion out of him. “Writing is for faggots,” he said; how can a parent be so toxic in their dismissal of their child’s ideas? I gave this young man my copy of Ham on Rye and together we talked about the similarities between Bukowski and his own situation. Even in the bad, good can occur. He’s getting pretty good at writing like Kerouac and we oft argue about his (lack of) commas: artists, amirite?

Another girl has been writing me her frustrations since Freshman year, delivering a handwritten note almost every week. Again, she is troubled by parents who don’t listen, friends who don’t understand, and counselors with the ever-ready prescription pad. “Writing helps keep me calm,” she admitted. “Thank you for listening,” she always adds.

Don’t stop writing, kids.

One foul-mouthed girl shares her kinder, gentler side with me, the tough exterior shed when she can finally admit freely what she desires from Life. “I will have a novel, art/gallery show,” she writes. “And you, Mr. Bruelhart will experience it. The only person who really cared about what I am passionate about. Inspired me to go do good things.” I beam with pride for her, but am reminded of this girl’s pain: how has no one else ever believed in her abilities?

How do we let our kids fall through the cracks and escape into emotional desolation?

Several instructors have had a tremendous influence upon my Life – from scholarly pursuits to human interaction – and perhaps it culminated in today’s poetic Life lesson. To be a person my charges can relate to, one with whom they can be themselves without fear of reprisals or ridicule, one with whom they can write, share, or express their feelings, and one who ultimately might teach them something along the Way.

Maybe I’m doing something good after all.

To my kids reading this – and to anyone, really – my door is always open. I always joke about what a rough gig teaching is, but you know I don’t do this for the pay. Yes, goombas, I do it for you. All +1750 words, I do for you.

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Author: Bruno

A blog for mad people by a madman.

5 thoughts on “On Influential Teachers and the Ever-Influential Richard Cory”

  1. Love this post. Just what I needed during my lunch hour break.
    So how do you go to military school and learn compassion? Military school was always a threat in our house. Perhaps I should have tried it!
    Love your description of TCU. Lots of SoCal kids go there. Our daughter went there for one semester (about two weeks actually in class). It could have been worse for you, however. You could have gone to SMU.
    Regarding the meat of your post, I was struck by how many of your students feel like they can’t open up to their family or friends. I think about my own kids. They’re now aged 21-39 and I wonder if they’re comfortable opening up to me? Do I give them the opportunity to do so? Your blog has inspired me to try.

    Like

    1. When you and your mates are suffering at the hands of an upperclassman, you wish you could change places and be the one with the power of push-ups. When you finally become that upperclassman, at least in my case, you begin to realize the humanity behind the uniform. Scared kids completely out of their comfort zones; I didn’t have much of a heart then, but it was beginning to grow.

      As for your kids, well, I’m no parent so what advice can I share aside from the obvious? Just be there and listen. Your kids might have something to share even as adults.

      Thanks for reading.

      Like

  2. Thanks for this post Bruno.
    As a young girl, I had two suicide attempts. Largely d/t
    being gay and not wanting to accept this beautiful part of me.
    You are a gift to these young souls seeking acceptance and sanity in this messy world.
    Thank you

    Like

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