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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Personal: A Letter From a Former High School Student 
26th-Jan-2007 02:49 am
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.
Mr. Novak!

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!

I am utterly overwhelmed.
26th-Jan-2007 03:24 pm (UTC)
Wow. I'm having a flashback to high school now, myself.

This letter is, actually, not uncommon -- my godfather (ironically, named Novo) would get a lot of girls I dismissed as bright-but-bland returning after YEARS to thank him.
27th-Jan-2007 06:05 am (UTC)
Flashbacks galore: had I been asked, I couldn't have dredged up any of those stories, but I remember them quite well with her reminder.
27th-Jan-2007 06:36 am (UTC)
Well, I meant the funny emotion of hero-worship, really :)
26th-Jan-2007 07:20 pm (UTC)
wow! I always thought that one of the reasons "It's a Wonderful Life" endures is because most of us really want to know on some level what influence and meaning our lives have on others. It's so cool that you got a glimpse of it - and without having to threaten to jum poff a bridge. :)
27th-Jan-2007 06:06 am (UTC)
I know! I'm unbelievably grateful.
26th-Jan-2007 09:31 pm (UTC)
Sweet action. I want to see the Monty Python dance!
27th-Jan-2007 06:07 am (UTC)
I don't remember the context, but there was some kind of spontaneous allusion to the Fish Dance. I'm sure it had a point....
29th-Jan-2007 05:47 am (UTC)
Your icon is out of control.
26th-Jan-2007 11:53 pm (UTC)
Excellent! Kind words from former students are always nice. That is a great letter.

Also, are you a fountain pen user?
27th-Jan-2007 06:10 am (UTC)
I know that this is always the big gift of teaching, when someone comes back, but this was so unexpected and specific....

I am a user of a Cross pen, but not a fountain pen in particular: I've never owned one, and I think I fear them as catastrophic leakers, but I don't know if that's true or something I just got from Tom and Jerry cartoons....
27th-Jan-2007 03:48 pm (UTC)
From my experience, fountain pens are not terrible leakers at all. I had a bottle of ink leak once, after a cat knocked it over on the desk, but no problems with the pens.
27th-Jan-2007 02:15 am (UTC)
That is so cool. I couldn't help but think of an item I submitted for the "Second Last Word - God always gets the last one" section of our church news letter. The message was quite simple ... we often go through life not knowing what kind if influence we have had on the world, but every so often God is gracious enough to give us a glimpse. We should all be so privileged to have a glimpse like that one! You just had a pretty neat glimpse my friend.

27th-Jan-2007 06:12 am (UTC)
I know, I know.... I've been ever so grateful all day. (As I said to your wife: you guys think a lot alike....) :-)
28th-Jan-2007 12:44 am (UTC)
I absolutely quake in my boots when I get notes like that. Frankly it's a bit scary to realize the kind of impression you can make on kids.

We are so not worthy of that.

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