SOMEWHERE AROUND FOURTH GRADE, I began to give up on school. It wasn't educating me. I was bored. So I withdrew into the world of books, imagining myself living in vastly different worlds.
I was the young man in My Side of the Mountain. I ran away and lived on the mountainside, hunting and trapping animals for food and fur. I even told a buddy about my plan to run away to the Catskill Mountains. But then I finished the book.
When I read Jim Kjelgaard's Big Red, I became Danny, the teenage owner of a beautiful Irish setter. Together, we confronted that roaring grizzly, Old Majesty. Big Red was the best dog I ever had.
I flew Junker planes on the Alaskan frontier. The book that took me there made me do things I wouldn't have believed possible, all in a leather bomber jacket. I was even able to fix mechanical problems on the plane's engine in mid-air. I guided that Junker through dangerous landings and takeoffs in the bitter cold of the Alaskan wilderness. I made deliveries and saved people's lives. And they loved me.
Of course, when I closed the book, it all came rushing back. I was none of these heroes. Instead, I was a conservative Mennonite boy living with a large, impoverished family, three brothers and four sisters, attending a parochial school in a small Ohio town. My father worked in a lumber factory, turning out more screen doors than God ever needed to keep mosquitoes out of heaven. He was plagued by migraine headaches, which grounded him several days out of every month and kept him from having the energy to run his own business.
ANGELS COME INTO OUR LIVES for a specific purpose. And most angels don't look anything as sweet as Clarence did in It's A Wonderful Life.
If I could have a serious conversation with God - where I could read his expressions and have him talk back to me - I'd make a suggestion.
"Why don't you provide an angel for every kid when he reaches middle school?" I'd ask. "It only makes sense. After all, by design, the only way a middle school creature can function is with an angel."
Of course, most middle school kids won't admit to needing an angel. I certainly wouldn't have. But I got one anyway. He arrived in my life the summer before my seventh-grade year. And his name was Myrrl Byler.
GREAT TEACHERS DO NOT follow a system. They rely on heart and brains - and they combine these in a way that may make no sense to the outside observer - except that it's effective. What makes one teacher loved and the other one hated? Both can follow the same curriculum, the same lesson plan, and yet there are two vastly different results. We've all seen this take place.
Superb teachers have the soul of a magician and the faith of a high priest. They carry the magical dust of angels, which they sprinkle around them with the enthusiasm of a child. They make learning look like play. Under their skillful touch, the most complex ideas turn childishly simple.
I know one thing. My life was changed because of my seventh grade English teacher.
THE FIRST TIME MY CLASS met Byler was when he taught our seventh grade summer Bible school class.
I have no idea what he taught that summer. But I do know our class was a rowdy group - and no one else liked us! We were hard to manage. We were mostly boys, mostly athletic, and mostly annoying. Even among middle school kids, we stood out.
And then there was moi. Completely uninterested in doing things the way everyone else did.
TOSSED AMONGST MY SPRAWLING FAMILY, packed into our tired house, I discovered that reading was one of the few areas in my life that I could control. Life in a conservative Mennonite community was regulated: what you wore, what you saw, what you did. But the local public library gave me a place where I could escape, where my mind was effectively unregulated.
Sometime after the age of ten, I discovered that I could ride my bicycle alone into our little town, past Tessmer's General Store, and past Napa Auto Parts, where my father got the chemicals he needed, all the way to the library.
And those books, all those books. Their smell did something for me, relaxed me, put me in the mood to slow down, to pay attention, and to feel safe. In the library there was no parent or teacher to get angry at something I had done - no punishments here. No arithmetic problems that repeated what I had learned the day before. The library was a world that wrapped about me and supported me.
And so I found a space where I could be what I desired. Why spend time with classmates who might make fun of my second-hand, patched clothes, or my family's eccentricities? While sitting in the library, I could get happily lost. I could forget about trying to fit in.
No one calls you a bookworm in the library.
I'm sure my parents didn't think they were teaching us anything. They were too busy trying to scrape by and feed us. But they did two things right in regards to my education.
MY PARENTS LOVED TO READ. They loved to read aloud, or listen to others read aloud. One of my fondest memories is of my mother at the kitchen table, reading tales from James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small. Listening avidly, we are gathered around her, my older sisters working on their homework. Sometimes my mother has to stop reading because she is laughing too hard to go on.
We often caught my parents reading from the newspapers they were using to mask the cars my father was about to paint. Reading while you are supposed to be working isn't a good business practice, unless you don't intend to make money. But it's a great way to infect your child with a love for the written word.
When the Reader's Digest arrived in the mail each month, we fought to have the right to read the jokes to my father. His laughter is still a priceless commodity to me. It is infectious, and childlike, and real. There were times during my childhood when I saw him get down on the floor and roll around, he was laughing so hard.
MY PARENTS DID SOMETHING ELSE that was brilliant - they mostly ignored the books their children chose to read. I think the only time my father ever blacklisted a book was when he saw me beginning the Communist Manifesto. I've always thought it an odd choice upon which to take a stand, but there it is.
And so I read what I wished. I would arrive home, my bicycle basket filled with books. Did I want to build a go-cart? I found a book that taught me how, and used my father's tools. Did I want to raise pigeons or rabbits? I checked out books on raising pigeons and building hutches, and we soon had a virtual zoo out back of the house, complete with several garter snakes.
How was I to realize that I was obtaining a superb education? I didn't intend to. I just loved the pleasure reading gave me. Occasionally, I stumbled on the literature I would eventually recommend to my English students after I became a teacher. During my fourteenth year, I read every short story written by Arthur Conan Doyle about Sherlock Holmes.
IRONICALLY, ONE OF THE WORST beatings I ever received in school came about because of something I chose to read.
I was in the fifth grade. The year was 1974. The high school students were undergoing a spiritual housecleaning. With their self-reflection came a lust for rules, a manifesto of earthly things that might lead them astray.
One of these was the ubiquitous comic strip. Reading these strips was a time-waster, the impassioned students and teachers concluded. One could use that time for praying, which would result in more souls being saved. Some of them took vows never to read a comic strip again.
When our class was told during morning devotions that comic books were evil, and that if we read them we would be in rebellion, and that rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and - well, I guess I just couldn't resist. The next day I brought in a comic book I borrowed from my neighbor. I can't even remember which one it was, probably Superman. I showed the book to two other rebels in the class, who also read it.
We were, of course, caught. Now before that day, I had never been treated like a leader. But now my teacher told me that I was. And since this was the case, I would get twice the punishment meted out to the other boys.
After praying solemnly with us, my fifth-grade teacher used a board on me, fully an inch thick, riddled with holes. He delivered all 14 cracks fiercely, without a single pause.
The logic of consistency is irresistible. It lures the simple by offering a clear path through the messy world of faith.
TWO YEARS LATER, when I first met the teacher who would play such a pivotal role in my life, I was actually in full rebellion to the system of religious education under which I was being taught. But I had learned - I was no longer openly defiant.
Instead, I had withdrawn. Social silence and indifference to my classes - these had become the barrier behind which I had retreated, blocking out all of my peers and teachers. But unlike my other teachers, Byler followed me into my world.
Byler himself had been a rebel within his fairly "liberal" Amish community, the Beachy Amish. He had attended Hartville Christian High School. He had graduated, happy to be done with his education, convinced that he was now ready to begin a real life. In his world, this meant construction work and marriage.
But that summer as Byler swung a hammer and drove nails under the blazing Ohio sun, he began to question the meaning of his life. He decided that he would go to college and teach.
I MUST HAVE BEEN one of Byler's first projects. I was skinny and short, my brown hair slung low over my forehead, usually uncombed. I was invariably slouched down. So he began to pull me out of study hall, talking to me, trying to figure out how to help. He had me listen to records on "How to Study."
"Why don't you do your homework?" Byler would ask.
But over the next two years, my grades moved inevitably downwards. And then it was too late. Eighth grade was over, I had failed three subjects, and according to the rules, I would repeat eighth grade.
I became worried. Somehow, I had thought I'd slip by again. But I hadn't. And I knew what happened to those who failed a grade in our school - they were the ultimate social misfits.
THEN BYLER DID SOMETHING unusual. He called my parents in for a heart-to-heart. And they came home with a deal in hand: I would be passed to high school on probation. I had to get at least a C in everything but math, my weakest subject, and I had to at least pass that. If not, back to eighth grade - and social hell.
I think they told me why I was given a second chance. My Stanford Achievement Test scores had come back. I was at the bottom of my class in grades, but my scores ranked me at the top.
I guess all that reading had done something, after all.
SEVERAL MONTHS INTO MY FRESHMAN YEAR, Byler called me out into the hall. I was worried.
I faced him as he stood there, a busy teacher delivering the news. His smile was awkward, I remember, a quirky movement of the mouth. He was more comfortable giving a manly scowl, I decided. Maybe he didn't care, I thought, since it was just me.
"So you're keeping your grades up," he said. "Good work."
He looked at me. I looked back, silently. Then he turned and walked away, leaving me in the hall.
IT ISN'T THE WAY ANGELS are supposed to work, I suppose. But sometimes you can't be particular.