Personal: A Letter From a Former High School Student
Oh my. I just received the following letter on Facebook from a former high school student of mine. She refers to the recent death of Tom Gerencher, who, as I wrote in August, was one of the very best teachers at St. Joe and the man I had chosen to be my own Mentor Teacher. I had no idea that I'd made any particular impression on this girl, who was clearly a gifted student, but who I just didn't think was particularly interested in anything I was doing or saying.
I'm sorry it has taken me so long to write back to you-- I was SO excited that I saw you by chance as one of my friend's friends! What a blast from the past. It appears that you retain your contemplative countenance and longish hair. It's strange to think of my high school teachers continuing on with their merry lives long after I had them for class--I thought you theology teachers assumed directly into heaven after imparting your wisdom to us at SJ :)
I suppose that's actually true in Mr. Gerencher's case. Which gives me a good jumping-off point. I never got to thank Mr. Gerencher for teaching me so much and so well before he died. So this is a great chance for me not to make the same mistake with you. I don't know if you recall me with any exactness, but I was a nervous Church History student of yours my junior year (I sat on the far left of the class and, having no one to talk to, stared at your classroom paraphenalia before class started, particularly the glossy photo of the atomic bomb marking "the way of folly" as opposed to the faithful door of wisdom). God, I loved your lectures. You had such a contemplative (that word again!)-calm voice and would do a soothing rhythmic pace forward and backward as you taught-- interrupting that pacing at one point with a Monty Python dance and (during some post-surgical forced immobility w/ crutches or a wheelchair, I can't remember which, precisely, you HAULED out of your impediments to chase down some truant students. Oh Mr. Novak, at that point I can remember thinking, "This man is insane...wonderfully insane."). And then there were the stock epithets you gave people off the cuff! "As the well-fed Jenna claims...as our resident swimmer So tells us..". And then, of course, there was your reverent recitation of "and all shall be well..." from the Showings. What a fantastic teacher you were, such a breath of fresh air from the usual contained stool-sitting SJHS people.
As I think about it now, I don't just remember your teaching style, I remember actual things from that stupid textbook they probably forced you to teach out of-- that greeny purple big floppy publication, all those bold words, Boniface and Bede (is there a difference between them, Mr. Novak? Is there really?), the Fourth Lateran Council...and definitely, the Perpetua and Felicitas/Julian readings. I still love the hazelnut sequence in Julian, and all the blood and milk and lions from P&F. I even kind of enjoyed the quizzes you made us take on those half-sheets of looseleaf paper.
Speaking of the quizzes, and getting to how you made a concrete and enormous difference in my life-- I once had to stay behind and take a quiz during a passing period....I had missed a class because of illness, I think. I got started, and you erased the board, dropped some chalk on the chalkboard sill, and asked me abruptly, "Do you get anything out of this class?"
I was so nervous! What did you mean? I stammered out something but you proceeded to explain, or at least implied, that you thought I was bright and might be bored with the approach you had adopted teaching the class, probably anxiety about your emphasis on rote repetition as opposed to conceptual discussion, I'd guess. (I missed a question on that quiz, by the way-- you had a red fountain pen and slashed something out, saying "ah, 4/5.") But I walked out of that class in shock. You thought I was bright?
Added to that moment of self-esteem boosting was the note you wrote to me on my Julian of Norwich paper, which started with "Splendid writing, ******." I don't think I have the paper anymore, but that sentence is burned into the stabler parts of my psychological makeup even now. A thousand times thank you for that!
I think the idea here is that just a few little gestures from you really propelled me onwards through school, gave me a mindset of confidence, gave me the sense that I was worthy of the work I was doing. You helped me to rise above all the bullshit, you know? Plus, your obvious faith and your willingness to show that faith made you a kind of touchstone, an absolute to measure other people against. I'm not putting this right. When you meet genuine people, you get better at recognizing genuity in others, to put it unorthodoxically and ungrammatically. Do you get what I'm saying?
Anyways, I went to ND, majored in English, and am now in the process of moving to Chicago, hoping to find work at some sort of publishing/legal/PR/ad agency. It's such a strange point in my life-- I feel like I need to do something, and something big, but I don't know what. But how are you? Are you doing well? How is your health?
Ok. Enough for now. But to reprise: thank you for being a great teacher. I'm so glad you're still on the planet! Continue doing what you're doing. Please!