In my high school, Brookfield High (Brookfield, Ohio), my favorite teacher was my English teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Drummond. I was fortunate enough to have her as my teacher for two years rather than one. She influenced me greatly with her love of learning, her wide range of knowledge, her understanding of the human condition as expressed through literature, and her love of language. In addition, she had a great sense of humor.
It’s possible that I would have become a writer no matter what, but I do know that Mrs. Drummond strongly encouraged me to consider becoming a writer. For that, among other things, I am eternally grateful.
When I went to college, I majored in English and in History, but when I went on to grad school, I studied American Literature. I myself went on to become an English teacher at the college level, working as an instructor at Kent State University and Cuyahoga Community College.
English teachers and teaching English and literature are in my background, for sure, and probably in my blood. This is not to say, however, that I consciously think about English teachers a lot. As far as I know, I don’t.
Yet when I started to write the opening scene of The F Words, who is it that catches Cole tagging the high school walls with the f word? It’s Mr. Nachman, his English teacher. It could have been his cross-country coach. Or his math teacher, or history teacher, or social studies teacher. It could have been the principal, or the assistant principal. Or the custodian. Yes, it could have been any of these others, but the truth is that I never, ever, gave a conscious thought as to who would intercept Cole — Mr. Nachman, his English teacher, stepped into the story and onto the page without my selecting him. He just appeared and there was never in my mind the slightest thought of sending him back.
Mr. Nachman, I believe, was destined to intervene in order to help Cole, whose father is in Cook County Jail for organizing his neighborhood to protest against the closing of the local grade school. It is because his father has been thrown in jail for exercising his civil rights that Cole is angry. Furious. Frustrated. Which is why he tags the high school wall with the f word.
Mr. Nachman, of course, understands why Cole does this. If he didn’t understand, he wouldn’t be much of an English teacher: if he didn’t understand, it would mean that reading great literature left him with little or no empathy. If he didn’t understand, he would be a failure as a teacher.
Because he understands many different things at once — that Cole is angry and frustrated; that defacing public property is not a responsible way to act; that somebody had better clean up the spray paint, and fast; that there are better, stronger, more effective ways to protest injustice — Mr. Nachman does not report Cole to the principal. Instead, he offers Cole a way out: if Cole volunteers to clean off the paint and writes two poems a week, each about a word starting with the letter f . . . then Nachman will never tell the principal who tagged the wall.
Mr. Nachman never states his motive for requiring Cole to write the two poems each week. Instead, he simply tells Cole that he (Cole) is pretty good at writing poetry. His motive, though, is to get Cole to think, to analyze, to reflect. About himself, other people, institutions, ideas — anything and everything that crosses Cole’s consciousness.
Like any good teacher, Mr. Nachman knows his students. The poetry-writing assignment calms Cole down and does get him to think, analyze, and reflect. And then, in the middle of the book, when Cole has made a major decision, Mr. Nachman steps in with more information about f words and about poetry. (I discussed this in a previous blog, The F Words: Poetry and the Middle).
Even that is not the end of Mr. Nachman’s importance to Cole’s life and to the story. But you will have to read the novel to see how that works out.
Mr. Nachman is not the hero of The F Words. The hero is Cole. And Felipe. And Treva. And their fellow students who fight for justice. The teen characters are in the foreground. But in the background are a few adult heroes. Cole’s English teacher is one of them.
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