Reading, Writing, and Landscaping

I recall seeing a number of my high-school teachers, all with master’s degrees or Ph.D.’s, painting houses and cutting lawns during the summer. This kind of thing still happens all over the country, and it’s a disgrace. When teachers are forced to tend the yards of students’ homes, to clean houses, or to sell stereos on nights and weekends, the quality of education is diminished, the profession is disrespected, and we parody the notion that we hold our schools and teachers in the highest regard. —Dave EggersReading, Writing, and Landscaping  (Mother Jones)

One rarely tells testimonials about the longshoreman data entry clerk or orthodontist who changed your life.

The teacher who had the most effect on my life was my high school English teacher and drama director. I had Michael Garcia for my first period freshman year, so he was my first exposure to high school academics.

  • On Feb 3, 1983, Mr. Garcia gave us a homework assignment to write a journal. Maybe that was the date it was due… but it sticks in my mind because I kept writing in that journal for 10 years. While working on my Ph.D., instead of journals, I wrote long letters to friends. While wrapping up my dissertation, I started blogging.
  • Mr. Garcia was also the drama club director. While my association with the drama crowd didn’t exactly help my social status among the jock-and-cheerleader crowd, it was an activity that brought me into contact with older students (with cars… that definitely improved my social life).
  • In the summer of 1984, I wrote a Star Trek novel — which I couldn’t bring myself to read when I came across it while unpacking boxes just this past Monday. Mr. Garcia read and commented on it, though it had nothing to do with his job description.
  • While directing me in the role of the theatre critic whose aunties kill old men in Arsenic and Old Lace, “G” got the idea that my character should carry around a little pad of paper all the time, and use it to jot down cutting remarks (presumably to use in future columns). I had fun ad-libbing with that pad. I started carrying that pad of paper everywhere. I’ve still got it (and several of its successors) in a box somewhere. When I went off to college, and started wearing T-shirts and other “civvies” rather than the Catholic school uniform with shirt pockets, I had nowhere to keep my pad of paper — and I felt naked. Then, one day in 1997, I was walking past a computer store, and I saw a display rack that featured the Palm organizer. I found the pad I’d been missing for many years, and now I’m a committed PDA user. Mr. Garcia has no idea how profoundly his off-the-cuff suggestion of a prop affected the development of my thought processes.
  • In high school, I usually worked as hard on the sets as I did on the stage, which was an early expression of my interest in both humanities and technology. I remember one year, “Mr. G.” gave me a “schizoid award,” and when presenting it he pretended to slap himself in the face with alternate hands, doing a Jekyl/Hyde routine: “I’m cast! (slap!) I’m crew! (slap!) I’m cast! (slap!) I’m crew!” My dual interest in the art and technology of theater eventually led to my book, Technology in American Drama, 1920-1950: Soul and Society in the Age of the Machine.
  • For several years, Mr. Garcia worked a summer job at the stage door of Wolf Trap Farm Park, a national park devoted to the performing arts. The summer after my freshman year in college, I worked at the Wolf Trap stage door. Mr. Garcia wasn’t working there that summer, but I worked with people who knew him well, and thus felt his influence. Stage door staff did everything from showing the stars to their dressing rooms to locking up the building at night. The job also involved keeping groupies from slipping backstage, to standing there looking contrite so that personal managers could yell at us and thus prevent the stars from thinking they weren’t in control. I’d have to say the experience killed any interest to pursue a career in the entertainment industry, but that was an important thing to learn, and at any rate the job was a lot of fun for an 18-year-old. I’m not sure at the time whether it clicked that Mr. Garcia was taking this job to help pay the bills.
  • On a drama club trip to New York, some friends and I managed to break a window in our hotel room. I had a great plan to steal a window from a stairwell and swap it with our broken one. Our antics attracted the attention of a room full of girls with honey-sweet Southern accents, who had been watching us from their room across the courtyard. While my buddies ran off to arrange an illicit after-curfew meeting with the Georgia Peaches (or whoever they were), my window swap plan fell apart, and I found myself choking out a confession at the front desk. At that moment, who should walk through the lobby but Mr. Garcia. He took me to his room, where I had a good cry — not really about the window, just about adolescence in general.
  • And of course, I remember all this stuff because it’s all in my journal.

A couple years after I graduated, Mr. Garcia quit teaching to work for State Farm insurance. His wife was also a teacher, but obviously their salaries weren’t enough to raise a family comfortably in Arlington (a suburb of Washington, D.C.). I’ve seen him on TV in commercials for State Farm, which show clips of him in our old auditorium, presumably volunteering with students. He’s also been active in fund-raising for the school (where his kids were attending, when I last heard from him).