He wasn’t my favorite teacher. He was intimidating and a tough grader. For a teenager with the kind of learning disabilities that make it difficult to get assignments done, he was more an arch nemesis than a friend. I was also rather lazy and preferred basketball to conjugating verbs.
I’d heard crazy stories about him from my older sister. She told of how he prowled the aisles between the desks while you took his exams, stopping behind you to stare silently at what you had written. He moved so quietly you never knew when he was right beside you. It sounded spooky to me. According to her, he also would pull the blackout curtains in the room, turn out the lights, light a single candle, and read Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, The Raven, in a spine-chilling, nightmarish voice. She said it raised the hair on the back of her neck. Miriam, however, wasn’t a reliable witness. Most older sisters aren’t. She had lied to me on numerous occasions, so I couldn’t really be sure about his reputation. Still, when Miriam had been a junior she had struggled to get her usual perfect A from him and if somebody like her, vying to be valedictorian, had such troubles, what chance was there for a ‘bottom thirder’ like me.
In a small Christian high school there was no way to graduate without taking Junior English and he taught English to juniors. As a freshman, I had survived Mr. Bromley’s class. Mr. Bromley had a wonderful bass voice, a big raucous laugh, and a remarkably bulbous nose which he occasionally twanged with his index finger. He looked like an English professor. That is about all I remember of him. Miss Mielke taught Sophomore English. In class one day I rather audaciously corrected her pronunciation of a word and she seemed quite upset when we looked it up in the dictionary and I was correct. Bill Graham was kind of naughty and he sat by the chalk board. He stood and drew a little box in the corner of the board and wrote, “Rod Hugen 1– Miss Mielke 0”. It got a good laugh and he was pleased with himself, although he might have had to receive a stern lecture from Rev. Buckner who was in charge of meting out correction to rambunctious teenagers. The next day the ‘scorecard’ was still on the board and someone had written ‘Save’ under it so the janitor wouldn’t erase it. It might have been Miss Mielke. Our pronunciation battle continued all semester long. We would run into a rarely used word and each of us would take a stab at it before looking it up. I don’t recall the final score of the contest, but I do remember winning.
One wakes up one day and finds themselves a high school junior. I walked into Junior English with a bit of trepidation. The teacher had curly dark hair, thick black framed glasses, and eyes that didn’t seem to quite focus as they bore through to your soul and exposed your ignorance. He didn’t seem like the kind of teacher who tolerated immature high school shenanigans. Some had tried to test him, of course. Students always do. I suspect there were many more stern conversations with Rev. Buckner that emerged from his classroom. I’d become smarter than most. I don’t mean book smart, either. Lord knows that wasn’t true. But I was ‘desk smart’. I knew how to avoid eye contact and when to just stare at an open book on my desk, or pretend to take notes. I learned to keep my ‘not so smart’ mouth closed. I knew when and how to use my ‘inside voice’. ‘Desk smart’ people didn’t have to endure Rev. Buckner’s sad-eyed disappointment. It was hard for a gangly six foot eight inch kid to hide behind a desk, but I did my best to disappear. I also turned in just enough homework to maintain a solid C. The C students got ignored a lot and we liked it. No hassles with mom and dad except maybe an occasional, “Try harder.” most often accompanied by a sigh, and no real interactions with the teacher or the administration. Sometimes it’s better to remain unnoticed.
One day we had to write a short story for class and I actually did the assignment. I liked it. I called my story A Little Place In Iowa. It was about a traveling salesman who longed to get off the road, find a nice girl to marry, and buy some farmland. He dreamed about having this little place in Iowa where he could settle down with the love of his life. As he drove down the highway late at night, he saw a beautiful long haired blonde girl on the far side of the road. He woke from having fallen asleep at the wheel and realizing the long blonde hair was actually the oncoming headlights of a semi-tractor trailer. He was buried in a small plot in a nearby cemetery—a little place in Iowa. I was pretty proud of it and turned it in and then worried if it was any good or whether the instructor would not like it or think it a subject too far out of bounds for a Christian kid to write about. It’s risky to write, especially when you are an angsty teenager.
Something major happens to you when a teacher reads your story to the class and tells everyone that it is good. Not just good, but very good. So good, in fact, that it is worth pinning to the wall. So good it gets an A with a plus sign. Deep in your soul something changes. Hope explodes inside. Dad had told me that writing was a waste of time. That it might make a nice hobby, but that I should pursue accounting or law or some career that paid well. Mom, who was always rightfully concerned about my pride, wouldn’t acknowledge anything I did well so I lacked a lot of confidence. But suddenly an English teacher changed all that. He said to me, “You should write. You know the way of words.” It was a wonderful blessing, as if God himself had spoken it.
English teachers, as a class, spend their lives spouting aphorisms. He was no exception. His “No laughter in the writer, no laughter in the reader; no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” quote reminded me to write from the heart. “The truth is not always in the facts.” helped me to remember to speak truthfully even if I couldn’t accurately remember all the details. He once told us, “Non-fiction is make-believe presented as truth. Fiction is truth presented as make-believe.” I loved that. I grew to love fiction. He taught me to de’was’ my writing. “Get rid of passive voice,” he’d murmur, “be bold! Write courageously!” English became my favorite subject. Well… it was a close third behind basketball and girls.
I started writing for fun, for the sheer pleasure of creating something beautiful with words. I’d always been a reader and had burned through a lot of flashlight batteries memorizing words out of the dictionary late into the night. I loved putting words together in prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction. I wrote sestinas and villanelles and Italian love sonnets. I wrote letters to the editor and magazine articles and devotionals and even started my own Great American novel. An excellent English teacher has the power to change your life.
Somehow I made it through high school. There were no accolades for me. Those were reserved for others. Dad had died in May of my junior year and I began working after school to help Mom and my siblings pay the bills. I started out at Grand Canyon University studying accounting, but dropped out soon enough. Dad was right. Poetry wouldn’t pay the bills. I sold auto parts and did janitorial work and mowed lawns and delivered flowers. I worked at most anything I could find to do. Girls and basketball and poetry fell away.
It’s fun to randomly run into a teacher you greatly admired back in your school days. Great memories rush to mind. That’s what happened to us. We reconnected briefly at a football game and he invited me to come to a Writers Group meeting he led. “Bring a manuscript,” he urged, “we’ll critique it for you.” Sure. Why not?
I’d been writing a bit. I was enmeshed in my business career, but the old love for words had never died. I showed up to the meeting with a lot of fear and shame. These folks were good writers. Skilled writers. Experienced writers. Wise writers. They’d probably mock my feeble efforts. I felt like a ‘bottom thirder’ all over again. But they were kind. Lovely people who loved God and loved words just like I did. He was especially kind. It was a great experience, so I returned. Again and again I showed up. I listened to the advice. I listened particularly hard when he spoke. He would catch what nobody else caught. He would make me a better writer. Eventually we began to meet for breakfast before Writers Group. He’d critique my work. He’d share some of his own. I remember reading his poem entitled Tame Is The Eagle In The Egg. It was a powerful piece that reached deep into my soul. My autographed copy of his award winning novel, Macintosh Mountain rests on my bookshelf with the words “Rest in Aslan’s paws.” written above his signature. He often challenged me. “You are writing like a college professor,” he offered. “If you want to sell your manuscript write to grade six level. That is the reading level of the majority of people.” He was right. I dumped my ego and the five syllable words and started selling manuscripts.
When we met for breakfast, we would talk about writing, but we also talked about God. A wise teacher listened to me as I struggled with my call to ministry and the difficulties of life. He offered words of encouragement. Words of deep insight. Words of wit and humor. Words that caused tears to fall. Words that brought clarity and definition. Beautiful, ordinary every day words. Life giving words. It’s what godly teachers do.
We had a last breakfast before I moved to Tucson to plant a church. I excitedly told him my plans and hopes and dreams for starting this new church. We chattered away and then he suddenly got very quiet. He finally said, “You will start the church and it will fail, I think. But then, later, God will give you back your dream in such a way that the glory goes to him and not to you. That is God’s way.” It was a hard thing to hear. Truth often is. I wanted to ignore it, but I couldn’t. A few years later when my funding was pulled, when nobody showed up for worship, and when I told those over me that I needed to quit and go back to accounting, his words rang loud in my ears. Sinner that I am, I had built the church of Rod, not the church of God. Today the Village Church thrives, but it certainly isn’t because of me. Sometimes I sit in the back of the sanctuary in the building God gave us and weep for joy at what God has done and is doing among us as we are used by him to bring about his kingdom in a city he loves. I look forward to see what his glory will yet accomplish. Some English teachers are also brave and godly prophets.
On a rare occasion, if I happen to be in Phoenix on a Saturday morning, I head over to the Writers Group. Many of the same lovely wordsmiths are still there. Some have run off to glory. Some have moved away. New ones have joined. The one constant is the wizened, hoary headed English teacher sitting at the ‘front’ of the circle. I always bring a manuscript. I let someone else read it because he once said it would help me to ‘hear’ what was wrong with my writing if I listened to someone else read it. It is such a delightful thing to do.
I received a note recently that he is retiring from the group. I hate that. It doesn’t seem right. I understand the inexorable march of time. I recognize we live in the age of decay. I know things can’t stay the same. Still, I hate it. Something deep inside me longs for it to never end.
I’d like to offer him a great retirement gift, but I don’t know what he needs or wants. I might send a little check to join other gifts as a token of my appreciation. But how does a token express the depth of gratitude to someone who changes the course of your life. I could write something, I suppose, and have him read it to the group. He could then take a few minutes to tell me what he likes about it and what is working for him. He could spent a few more minutes critiquing it, but only if he can offer suggestions for improvement. I’d have to stay silent the entire time. That’s a rule in Writers Group. He used to say, “You won’t be able to stand next to the reader and explain what you meant to say when they are reading what you wrote, so you aren’t permitted to defend your writing here.” He taught me to write. His voice rattles around in my mind all the time when I’m writing. Maybe I’ll ask him to critique this…
“Writers write.” he once told me. So I do. But when I so want to express my love and gratitude now, the thesaurus fails me. Mr. Webster doesn’t have enough words. I’m left with nothing but the simplicity of the tried and true.
Thank you, Mr. Kelly. Thank you for all you’ve done.