To My High School English Teacher

Aaron Shea
Age of Awareness
Published in
5 min readApr 6, 2020
Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

I don’t think I ever gave you a fighting chance. Not you you, what you were trying to do, what you were trying to teach me and all of us. I look back at the confused troubled kid of that time and want to give him a hug, a pat on the pack, a reassurance that it’s all going to be okay — some vein attempt to save myself from the struggle of the coming months and years. When I look more closely though, I realize something that wasn’t really clear to me before.

You did all those things.

It came to me the other day that I couldn’t remember what we read in your class. I can remember reading The Odyssey Freshman year and Jane Eyre sophomore year, but when I look back to the years I spent in your class, they’re blank. So I find it odd that I consider you to be the most influential of all of my teachers. I had to ask a friend what it was we actually read in your class our Junior year of high school: Hamlet, 1984, Cats Cradle, Madame Bovary. I think I can remember a discussion or two — I can certainly remember my mind wandering back to home, worrying about the days and nights that were ahead.

Did you know that I first came out to someone in your classroom? You used to let us escape there during lunch. By us, I mean the misfits, the kids who didn’t quite belong anywhere else: queers, nerds, oddballs. We would come to your room and watch Netflix during lunch instead of trying our luck at the cafeteria. I joke that my high school was pulled directly out of a movie on American culture — with jocks and cheerleader royalty, theatre geeks in the basement and study nerds glued to their books in the hallways. You provided a place for the confused, for the ones who didn’t belong.

Your classroom looked like a crazy man’s room out of a piece of fiction. On one side you had bookshelves full of your favorites and books students had donated to you, with an open lending policy. In the back of the room you had a mannequin, which we named George, who was dressed up in a trench coat with a top hat and an hourglass in hand — full mystery solving attire. On the walls were pictures of different theater shows you’d seen, as well as the poster from your favorite movie: Casablanca. The shapes of the desk could change daily, from a U shape, to a cluster of 4 desk groups, to an odd zig zag, depending on the mood of both your and your students. It was the clearest example of organized chaos I can think of.

I’ll never forget the day I walked into class as you were playing Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles” on the projector. We spent the day giggling to each other quoting “magic everywhere in this bitch!” You treated us like adults; you weren’t afraid to swear in front of us or talk about politics, finances, what was really going on in the world — as long as we knew to be good when someone from administration came in. We developed a mutual respect in that way.

I remember writing on a tiny piece of paper “I think I might be gay” and giving it to the only other person I knew in the school who was queer. No one knew the nights of agony I spent in my room, crying over it. I now have a feeling that you did know. In giving a space to us, you allowed me and many others to explore ourselves when no other space was made for us or was rightfully ours.

Photo by Kevin Oetiker on Unsplash

Our high school was high class, we lived in a good part of town. The running joke was that our parking lot was nicer than most car dealerships — Mercedes, Ferrari, Porsche, they were all there. I remember when I started my sales job, I went to your apartment to try and sell you a set of knives. Your three room apartment was about the size of guest houses in our area. You were a divorcée in his 50s shovelling his way out of the great recession, never letting any of his students see it. You showed up to work every day, trying to tell the lot of us that Madame Emma Bovary, always waiting for the one thing she needed in life to be happy, would never be happy. You walked in to work every day happy.

You took us though Hamlet’s inability to make a decision, and the intricacies of censorship through Newspeak. Only now it occurs to me exactly what you were doing in that classroom of yours — attempting to teach us about humanity. On how to be content, how to find meaning, how to stand out and think for ourselves. And that’s exactly how the space for us outcasts was created, because you saw us, really truly saw us like the characters you were trying to teach. You stood in front of us, reading Cats Cradle, practically yelling “See the cat? See the cradle?”

Cat’s Cradle First Edition Cover. Kurt Vonnegut, 1963

We spent so long trying to find meaning in what was going on, attempting to place ourselves in the finely woven fabric of what we knew of life. Where did we belong? Next to the cat? Behind the cradle? I grew up looking for myself in my parent’s idea of how my life was supposed to look. Getting married to a woman, being a doomsday prepper like them, keeping my problems to myself. When I stopped seeing that for myself I started wondering, where did I belong? And you opened your classroom door to start the day.

Funnily enough, you gave the answers all those years ago, tried to teach and prepare us for the world outside of our homes and schools. Outside of the overtly luxurious lives most of these students were living while you worked your ass off to get by and give back to them. You read it to us in front of class:

“No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X’s . . .”
“And?”
“No damn cat, and no damn cradle.”

There is no place where we overtly belong. There is no one thing that will make Madame Bovary happy, there is no right answer Hamlet can choose, there is no shape to find in the Cats Cradle. You tried to show and teach us and prepare us and help us. It’s only now going back, rereading all the books from my junior year of high school that I begin to see it.

You showed us the cat. You showed us the cradle.

Thank you.

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Aaron Shea
Age of Awareness

Software engineer and literature nerd. Can be found drinking coffee and thinking about Lord of the Rings.