by Ron Hayes
I like to think we’ve all had a teacher or two who, somewhere along the way, succeeded where others couldn’t or clicked with us in a way that has remained with us – and will continue to remain with us – for as long as we will remember. For me, there are a dozen or so of those blessed souls. But beginning in high school, there are really only about a handful who I know I’ll carry with me until I die: Tim Mahoney, my high school English teacher; Ron Stitt, my high school band/music theory teacher; Joe Shesman, my football coach; and Zach Irwin, John Champagne, and Alan Michael Parker, my collegiate triumvirate of profs who taught me passion, precision, and professionalism. Dr. Irwin, the consummate “nutty” professor from my college experience(s), taught me the value of intellectual engagement not only with the material but with my audience. Dr. Champagne rigidly held me accountable to my own writing, to my arguments and the substantiation necessary to prove them, and to the scholarship necessary to be successful at whatever I wanted to do. Alan Parker invited me in to the world of poetry and he continues to this day to teach me something every time I read his work. He let me back in years later to teach me even more about the Po-biz (as he calls it) as he directed my MFA thesis. The best part of all of it though? Each of them graciously took it a step further and welcomed me into their circles as a friend.
I’ve been beyond fortunate in this way. I could list another half dozen phenomenal professors whom I now count as a friend: Dr. Greg Morris, Dr. Dean Baldwin, Dr. Ruth Auld, Dr. Leanne Roberts, and Dr. Diana Hume George, without whom I would never have become a poet and never pursued my MFA. I owe her a lot in particular, and I’m grateful for each one of them.
But if there’s one teacher I give thanks for the most, it has to be the one I most often forget.
In the fall of 1987 I headed four hours south of where I live to attend college in The-Middle-of-Nowhere, Pennsylvania. Tiny Saint Francis College (actually in tiny Loretto) happened to have a Marine Biology program, happened to have a crappy football team that wanted me to play for them, and happened to be the one college (of two) where I’d applied who’d said “Yes! We’ll take you.” And so off I went. And yes, you read that right – I was going to be a Marine Biology major. Save the whales, intern at SeaWorld to work with dolphins, live on a boat somewhere sunny…all that.
Oh what a difference our teachers make.
First, enter Father Almost, as in almost alive, almost intelligible, almost engaging, almost competent. Father Almost taught Biology 101, a Marine Biology core class, of course, and a painfully slow rehash of everything I’d already learned in Mr. Dobi’s Advanced Biology class in high school. Father Almost was everything I hope I’ll never be as a teacher: dry, boring, condescending, supercilious, and imperious. He killed any interest I had in biology and didn’t seem to care one bit that I wasn’t alone in that.
Meanwhile, in the building next door, I would report every Tuesday-Thursday at 10:30 to Mr. Raymond Berner’s classroom for English 101. This bastard changed my life. Having no idea what would, could, or should be taught in a freshman-level college English class, I blithely toddled off to the bookstore to get the books for his class: Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and a book I STILL own: First Forty-Nine: the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. A week later, I’m furiously typing the last few sentences of my first college paper on Hemingway’s “Up In Michigan,” when some upperclassmen come in. One of them sees the book next to me and asks, “You got Berner?” I stop long enough to look up and nod. He cracks a wide grin and says, “Shit. Good luck with that! That dude hasn’t given anything higher than a C in 20 years.” He nodded at my paper. “Due today?” “Yeah,” I said. “Make sure you don’t turn it in late. Automatic F.” Super.
Fast-forward another week and Mr. Berner waits until the end of class to return papers. He dismisses class one student at a time, handing each of us our papers as we go. I am last. Berner sits at the desk at the front of the room and I can just feel the “D” scrawled at the top of my paper as I slowly shuffle forward from my seat near the back. For some reason he’s not holding my paper out for me to grab-and-go like he did for everyone else. He waits until I’m right next to his desk. “You write this?” He waves my paper toward me and, reaching for it, I can see only part of the blue-ink circle swirled around my grade, his thumb covering the fateful letter. “Yes,” I reply. “Where are you from?” “Erie,” I say. He nods and releases my paper. The circled letter is a B.”Keep writing papers like that and there’s no reason you can’t get an A.” At that moment my future in biology took a fatal nosedive.
If you know me you know I never made it through that first year at Saint Francis. I made a lot of dumb decisions, chose a lot of the wrong people to help validate me, and my decline began with sleeping in, being late to class, missing class, and not caring at all. Still, I kept reading Hemingway, I made it to more English classes than I missed, and I kept writing those papers. It turns out I didn’t do enough to get that A, but I must have done little enough for Mr. Berner to notice. One day he called me into his office. “You have all the tools to be a very good writer. Your papers are proof of that. Why you miss so many classes is really none of my business, but you should understand that I could easily have failed you already. I won’t, and I don’t plan to.” And he went on to tell me about talent and insight and work and scholarship and few other things that have all been lost to the ether. Too many drugs. Too many blows to the head. All of it gone.
What remains is what’s important. He took time to invest in me. He kept his distance, kept it professional, but in his stiff, stoic manner, he let me know I was good at what he valued most: thoughtful insight, competent writing, and an ability to find meaning in the minutiae of Hemingway’s work. He said what he had to say and he let me go. Weeks later I was gone for good.
In 1998, ten years after, my life roller-coastered its way back to college (after the death of my father and the birth of each of my sons), and circumstances conspired to bring me to Mr. Berner’s neck of the woods for a college English conference in nearby Altoona. Falling asleep my first night in Altoona, my thoughts meandered back over the previous decade and, realizing my proximity to Loretto, Saint Francis, and Mr. Berner, I damn near sat bolt-upright in bed. I could reach out! I could get in touch with him! Only thirty quick miles away, I could swing over from Altoona to visit him in Loretto for a minute or two, show him my paper from the conference (not surprisingly on Hemingway), catch up on things a bit, and thank him. Let him know that he was right about me, even though I’d disappeared on him. Validate him as he had validated me.
I couldn’t wait until the next morning. I delivered my paper first thing at the 9:00 am session and made a beeline to the pay phone in the lobby immediately after. It took a few rings for someone to answer. I know I was grinning in anticipation the whole time. The woman who finally answered was pleasant, if befuddled. I probably didn’t help matters. In my excitement, I babbled something about looking for an old professor. Could she please tell me if he’s still there? “I’m sorry, who are you looking for?” she asked. “Raymond Berner,” I told her. “He taught English? Big Hemingway guy?” She didn’t know. “Do you mean Dr. Beamon?” “No, Raymond Berner. English professor.” “Hang on,” she said. I think she may have been exasperated. A moment later a different, older woman’s voice reached out to me. “Saint Francis Coll–er, University. Can I help you?” I explained once more. “I’m a former student. I’m looking for one of my old professors there, Mr. Raymond Berner. He taught -” “Oh!” she said, cutting me off. “Mr. Berner’s gone.” “Oh, he is?” I said. “Oh yeah. He died, oh, has to be six or seven years ago now.” All the air in my lungs whooshed out. “Oh…” I croaked. I stammered a quick apology, thanked her, and hung up the phone.
Raymond Berner never became my friend. I never had an opportunity to become his. At best, he afforded me a few kind words at a shitty time of my life, assigned me a “B” as a final grade when everyone told me I’d never rise above a “D,” and he hooked me for life on the short stories of Ernest Hemingway. More than that, he pushed me to realize my gift, an ability to cobble words together in a coherent fashion, and he opened the door of possibility for me to walk through if not at a point on his timeline, then certainly at a point at which I was capable of choosing to walk through that door. As we give thanks this month for an important teacher in our lives, I’d simply like to say what I wanted to say in 1998:
Thank you Mr. Berner. Thank you for Papa, for papers rigorously graded, for platitudes barely earned, and for pushing me toward the life of a writer I alternately hate and love. You made a difference in my life, and I wish I could have told you that in person.