The Teacher Is You

I don't know if it's acceptable for me, a teacher, to post a teacher appreciation story (no, not about myself), but the reason I'm writing this short piece at five in the morning on the last day of a long work week is my gratitude for Mr. Berkeley, my 10th grade American lit teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School. He's the main reason I've been an English teacher for over 30 years.

The first day of class, he handed out a lengthy multiple-choice test, then read us the answers as we filled them in. "There," he announced when we finished. "We've covered the curriculum," and we sat in our orderly desks staring in amazement at "Bezerkley," who, in his perfectly serious black suit, white shirt, skinny tie, and black-rimmed glasses, beamed back at us with a mischievous grin.

Here's what I remember from his class:

1. At the end of every period, he read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn out loud -- so that by the end of the year, we'd heard the whole book. Of all the books I've read (lots), Huck is still my favorite because I can still hear him reading it

2. He wrote the word "onomatopoeia" on the board in very large letters and taught us to spell it correctly.

3. He gave us a bulletproof formula for writing a thesis statement, one I used all the way through school and that I now teach my students. I call it "Mr. Berkeley's Magic Thesis Formula."

4. I performed a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire while wearing a strapless bra (for the first time), my mother's pink gingham spaghetti strap sundress and a straw hat. I became Blanche DuBois.

4. Mr. Berkeley owned a VW camper (he took his family camping every summer), he lived a few blocks from us, and he worked as an editor on the weekends -- in short, he was my only teacher who seemed to exist in the real world.

5. One weekend he took the entire class to the Brookfield Zoo on bicycles, just for fun. He wore a rainbow-colored beanie with a propeller on the top. If he had been our father, we would have been embarrassed, but Mr. Berkeley was so cool, it didn't matter that he looked ridiculous and therefore, by association, so did we. He told us that he did not usually take his students on such outings, but that we were a special group.

6. When he returned papers, he always read the best one out loud, but never named the author, an anonymity I welcomed, having always been shy about being praised publicly.

7. Each of us studied a favorite poet and shared a favorite poem in a class anthology. My best friend Judy, who sat in front of me, chose "Richard Cory." We must've given some sort of presentation and written a paper, and although I do not recall those details, I've used a similar assignment with my students for many years.

8. He told us to write from our heart of hearts. I tell my students the same.

I often think of Mr. Berkeley. Maybe next year I'll read Huck Finn to my students, take them on a bicycle trip and buy myself a VW camper for summer vacations. Maybe next year I'll become Mr. Berkeley.

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