2004 Twain Book Awards

2004 Twain Book Awards

 

1)    The Big Horse (Joe McGinniss)

2)    God on the Starting Line (Marc Bloom)

3)    Drop City (T.C. Boyle)

4)    The Darling (Russell Banks)

5)    The Doctor’s Wife (Elizabeth Brundage)

 

The Big Horse -  What a fun book to read during the racing season at Saratoga.  McGinniss spent a month following famous horse trainer P.G. Johnson at Saratoga during the summer of 2003.  Johnson is a real original, a working class trainer who finally got his big horse Volponi during the last few year’s of his illustrious career.  The book is really about overcoming loss, and it’s as much about the comeback of the author as it is about the trainer.  I also loved reading about Saratoga.

 

God on the Starting Line – Journalist and runner Marc Bloom takes a job coaching cross country at a small Catholic High School in New Jersey.  Bloom, who is Jewish, learns a little bit about what it means to be Catholic, and his runners learn a little bit about what it means to be Jewish.  I read this book during my wonderfully exciting cross country season of 2004, and I loved all the drama of the races.   It captures some of the reasons why I love to coach.

 

Drop City – During our jaded times of today it was fun to read a book about the 1960’s when a group of young people really felt like they could change the world.  I also loved the characterization, and the experiences they encountered up in Alaska.  T.C. Boyle is always a fun writer.

 

The Darling – Russell Banks does an excellent job at combining the activism of the 1960’s and life in Liberia.  The story follows Hannah Musgrave as she transforms herself from loving affluent daughter to counter culture revolutionary then to ex-patriot American and mother and finally to Adirondack farmer.  The story combines excellent characterization with a strong adventure story.

 

The Doctor’s Wife – Elizabeth Brundage has written a first novel that really shook me up.  It’s a tale of infidelity, prejudice, and also a psychological thriller.  The story takes place in and around Albany, and it follows two couples who struggle to do what is right.  This is a book you won’t forget after you read it.

 

 

 

2003 Twain Book Awards

2003

 

1)    Waiting (Ha Jin)

2)    Seabiscuit (Laura Hillenbrand)

3)    Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)

4)    A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers)

5)    North Country (Howard Frank Mosher)

 

Waiting – A beautifully written book about life in modern day China.  The story centers on Lin Kong, a doctor in the Chinese army, who is in a loveless marriage and is forced to wait 18 years till he is granted a divorce.  He then struggles with his new wife Manna Wu.  No one is a villain in this book except perhaps the stagnant culture of Communist China.  This book allowed me to smell, taste and feel what it would be like to live in China.  After finishing the book I kept thinking about it for days.

 

Seabiscuit – The book was not written very poetically, but what a story.  Hillenbrand is clearly a journalist who has done her research in bringing to life the lives of Seabiscuit, his owner, his trainer and his jockey.  I found myself rooting for all four of them.  It’s a real feel-good story.

 

Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood has once again written a chilling account of a future gone completely wrong.  I’m always a sucker for good science fiction, and this is one of the best I’ve read in the past ten years.  It really made me think about the dangers of genetic engineering, and a future that may involve many genetically altered creatures.  Very scary!

 

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers, the twenty-something narrator, has written a wonderful memoir about his struggles in raising his seven-year-old brother after the deaths of both of his parents within 30 days of each other.  I loved the humor in the book, his love of Frisbee, and his struggles in growing up and at the same time trying to be a parent to his brother.  His writing was filled with irreverence and poetry.

 

North Country – I absolutely love travel books, and this one followed Howard Frank Mosher as he traveled the United States and Canadian border from Maine to Washington.  He meets fascinating people along the way and he clearly loves the North Country and the people who inhabit that area.  A must read book especially if you’re traveling in that area.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Twain Book Awards

2003

 

1)    Waiting (Ha Jin)

2)    Seabiscuit (Laura Hillenbrand)

3)    Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)

4)    A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers)

5)    North Country (Howard Frank Mosher)

 

Waiting – A beautifully written book about life in modern day China.  The story centers on Lin Kong, a doctor in the Chinese army, who is in a loveless marriage and is forced to wait 18 years till he is granted a divorce.  He then struggles with his new wife Manna Wu.  No one is a villain in this book except perhaps the stagnant culture of Communist China.  This book allowed me to smell, taste and feel what it would be like to live in China.  After finishing the book I kept thinking about it for days.

 

Seabiscuit – The book was not written very poetically, but what a story.  Hillenbrand is clearly a journalist who has done her research in bringing to life the lives of Seabiscuit, his owner, his trainer and his jockey.  I found myself rooting for all four of them.  It’s a real feel-good story.

 

Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood has once again written a chilling account of a future gone completely wrong.  I’m always a sucker for good science fiction, and this is one of the best I’ve read in the past ten years.  It really made me think about the dangers of genetic engineering, and a future that may involve many genetically altered creatures.  Very scary!

 

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers, the twenty-something narrator, has written a wonderful memoir about his struggles in raising his seven-year-old brother after the deaths of both of his parents within 30 days of each other.  I loved the humor in the book, his love of Frisbee, and his struggles in growing up and at the same time trying to be a parent to his brother.  His writing was filled with irreverence and poetry.

 

North Country – I absolutely love travel books, and this one followed Howard Frank Mosher as he traveled the United States and Canadian border from Maine to Washington.  He meets fascinating people along the way and he clearly loves the North Country and the people who inhabit that area.  A must read book especially if you’re traveling in that area.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2004

 

1)    The Big Horse (Joe McGinniss)

2)    God on the Starting Line (Marc Bloom)

3)    Drop City (T.C. Boyle)

4)    The Darling (Russell Banks)

5)    The Doctor’s Wife (Elizabeth Brundage)

 

The Big Horse -  What a fun book to read during the racing season at Saratoga.  McGinniss spent a month following famous horse trainer P.G. Johnson at Saratoga during the summer of 2003.  Johnson is a real original, a working class trainer who finally got his big horse Volponi during the last few year’s of his illustrious career.  The book is really about overcoming loss, and it’s as much about the comeback of the author as it is about the trainer.  I also loved reading about Saratoga.

 

God on the Starting Line – Journalist and runner Marc Bloom takes a job coaching cross country at a small Catholic High School in New Jersey.  Bloom, who is Jewish, learns a little bit about what it means to be Catholic, and his runners learn a little bit about what it means to be Jewish.  I read this book during my wonderfully exciting cross country season of 2004, and I loved all the drama of the races.   It captures some of the reasons why I love to coach.

 

Drop City – During our jaded times of today it was fun to read a book about the 1960’s when a group of young people really felt like they could change the world.  I also loved the characterization, and the experiences they encountered up in Alaska.  T.C. Boyle is always a fun writer.

 

The Darling – Russell Banks does an excellent job at combining the activism of the 1960’s and life in Liberia.  The story follows Hannah Musgrave as she transforms herself from loving affluent daughter to counter culture revolutionary then to ex-patriot American and mother and finally to Adirondack farmer.  The story combines excellent characterization with a strong adventure story.

 

The Doctor’s Wife – Elizabeth Brundage has written a first novel that really shook me up.  It’s a tale of infidelity, prejudice, and also a psychological thriller.  The story takes place in and around Albany, and it follows two couples who struggle to do what is right.  This is a book you won’t forget after you read it.

 

 

 

 

 

2005

 

1)    Team of Rivals (Doris Kearns Goodwin)

2)    The Crazyladies of Pearl Street (Trevanian)

3)    The Devil in the White City (Erik Larson)

4)    The Known World (Edward P. Jones)

5)    Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (Anne Lamott)

 

 

Team of Rivals – I always heard what a wonderful president Abraham Lincoln was, but until I read this 754 page book I never knew what a wonderful person he was.  I loved his sense of humor, his ability to get along with all types of people, and most importantly his compassion for others.  It took me almost two months to read this book, and I enjoyed every page.  Half-way through the book I interviewed Doris Kearns Goodwin and also heard her speak at SUNY.  As I got to the end of the book I kept wanting to tell him not to go to Ford’s Theater on April 14th, 1865.

 

The Crazyladies of Pearl Street – What a nice discovery this book was, a memoir written by a famous international author about his childhood in Albany, right near where my own parents grew up and near where I was born.  Trevanian did an expert job bringing to life the sights and sounds of Albany in the late 1930’s and 1940’s.  He really made you feel what it was like during those scary days of World War 2.  It felt sort of like a Dickens novel to me.

 

The Devil in the White City – Another non-fiction book, this was about the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.  It had alternating chapters, one about the design and building of this glorious World’s Fair and the next chapter about Dr. H.H. Holmes, known as America’s first serial killer.  It was especially fun to read after visiting Chicago in May.

 

The Known World – A Pulitzer Prize winning book about Henry Townsend, a former slave who himself becomes a slaveholder after gaining his freedom.  Jones has done an amazing job at creating a fictitious area of Virginia that seems so real.  We get to know many of the residents of that town, and we understand the horrible pull of slavery for both the slave and the slaveholder.  A boook you’ll never forget.

 

Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith – Anne Lamott has once again made it to the Twain Awards with another laugh out loud book about her life and her struggles.  I enjoyed much of the heated dialogue she has with her teenage son Sam. There are very few writers that write so smoothly and with such wisdom and humor.

 

 

2006

 

1)    Duel in the Sun (John Brant)

2)    Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (Nick Flynn)

3)    Bowerman and the Men of Oregon (Kenny Moore)

4)    The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)

5)    The Last of Her Kind (Sigrid Nunez)

 

 

Duel in the Sun – A nonfiction account of the 1982 Boston marathon when the two great American distance runners of the time, Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley, ran stride for stride up and down the hills of Boston in the grueling heat.  The story feels like fiction as it follows the two great runners before, during and especially after their great race.  More than any other book I’ve read, this one describes perfectly what it means to be a world-class athlete, and what it means to have your world come crashing down.  Even if you don’t like sports, you’ll enjoy reading this book.

 

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City -  A memoir about a time in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s when the author worked at a homeless shelter in Boston and his father, who had left the family years earlier, enters one night as a homeless man.  The most powerful book I’ve ever read about what it’s like to be homeless in America.  After reading this book I’ll never look at the homeless in the same way.

 

Bowerman and the Men of Oregon – An exciting biography of the great track coach and innovator from the University of Oregon, who coached multiple Olympians, including the legendary Steve Prefontaine.  Bowerman seemed to be everywhere in the last century from the battlefields of World War 11, to the Munich Olympics and then to the beginning of the Nike Shoe Company.  Reading his life is like reading a timeline of the great events of the twentieth century.

 

The Kite Runner – My favorite work of fiction last year.  An epic story that begins in Afghanistan, moves to the United States and goes back to Afghanistan.  A great story about the power of friendship.  I thought the ending got a bit predictable, but still an excellent read about a dangerous area of the world.

 

The Last of Her Kind – A great novel about the 1960’s that explores two very different women who meet as freshmen roommates at Barnard College in 1968.  This book didn’t mythologize the Sixties.  It described the dark side of the decade along with its hope for a changed and better world.

 

 

 

 

2007

 

  1. The Road (Cormac McCarthy)
  2. Bridge of Sighs (Richard Russo)
  3. Eat, Pray, Love (Elizabeth Gilbert)
  4. A Long Way Gone (Ishmael Beah)
  5. The Last Great Fight (Joe Layden)

 

 

 

The Road – My favorite work of fiction last year.  The story follows a boy and his father as they try to survive in a post-Apocalyptic world.  The writing is sparse, but I found myself caring so much about the two characters and their love for each other.  You never quite find out what happened to the world and why it became so bleak.  All you care about is that the boy and the father find their way to the ocean and hopefully a safe place to live.  This book stayed with me for days after I read it.

 

Bridge of Sighs – One of my favorite writers is once again writing about upstate New York.  Russo has created three main characters Lou, Bobby and Sarah, each with flaws, but all of them likeable.  I loved the heartbreaking love story of this book, and it was exciting to interview Russo and speak with him for 45 minutes about writing and this book just as I was about to finish it.  There is no writer living today who has the ability to make a fictionalized place seem so real.  This was also a fun book to read after having traveled to Venice this summer.

 

Eat, Pray, Love – My favorite work of nonfiction.  I loved the author’s sense of humor as she took a year to learn about herself.  First she traveled to Italy, then to India and finally to Bali.  The Italy section had me laughing out loud.  I look forward to reading more from this author. Her style reminded me a bit of Anne Lamott.

 

A Long Way Gone – Wow, what a memoir about this twelve year old boy trying to survive in war torn Sierra Leone.  Some of the most brutal war scenes I’ve ever read, and also some excellent poetic writing.  I couldn’t put the book down.

 

The Last Great Fight – My friend Joe Layden has written a tremendously moving story about Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas, who met for the Heavyweight Championship in 1990.  This book isn’t just about boxing, and the sad state it’s in today, but it’s actually about these two flawed individuals who made boxing history.  It really put a more human face on Mike Tyson.  I found it very touching.

 

 2008

 

1)    Unaccustomed Earth (Jhumpa Lahiri)

2)    The Art of Racing in the Rain (Garth Stein)

3)    The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (Bill Bryson)

4)    World Made by Hand (James Kunstler)

5)    Like You’d Understand Anyway (Jim Shepard)

 

 

Unaccustomed Earth – There is no one writing better short stories today than Jhumpa Lahiri.  In her newest collection of eight stories, she writes about many Bengali characters who are struggling to live happy lives in two worlds.  Many of these stories had surprising conclusions.  Her writing is like poetry, and her dialogue is perfect.  She creates both male and female characters that seem completely real.  I cared deeply about every one of her protagonists.

 

The Art of Racing in the Rain – This is an excellent work of fiction told from the point of view of a dog named Enzo.  Enzo is a sort of philosopher who has tremendous insight into human behavior.  I found this story sad, funny and ultimately very uplifting.  I will never forget the last two chapters of this book.  If you’re a dog lover, this is a must read.

 

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid – This was the funniest book I read all year.  It had me laughing on every page.  Bill Bryson knows how to mix in the right amount of exaggeration with what actually happened in his life.  I keep telling everyone I know to read this book, especially people who were alive in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

 

World Made by Hand – This is a riveting story about a community in upstate New York that is trying to survive in a future world that lacks oil and electricity.   These people live in a world of abandoned highways and ruined suburban malls.  To survive, people must once again learn how to work together.  I couldn’t put this book down.

 

Like You’d Understand Anyway – Another short story collection, but one of the most different collections I’ve ever read.  Shepard has a bizarre sense of humor, and his stories reflected that.  One of them was an outrageously funny story about a geeky kid at summer camp, and another story scared me out of my mind.  It was about the last executioner in France.  All of these stories were unforgettable.

 

 

 

 

 

2009

 

1)    The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (Sherman Alexie)

2)    That Old Cape Magic (Richard Russo)

3)    The Geography of Bliss (Eric Weiner)

4)    Born to Run (Christopher McDougall)

5)    A Moveable Feast (Ernest Hemingway)

 

 

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian – Junior is a teenager who likes to draw cartoons.  He’s growing up on a Spokane Indian reservation.  He’s also one of the most likeable characters I’ve ever read about.  This story is very funny and very sad at the same time.  It really got to me with its tale of growing up in such poverty and in a community with so much alcoholism.  this story is being marketed as a Young Adult novel, but adults should read it.

 

That Old Cape Magic – Richard Russo once again lands on the Twain List.  this book is funnier than many of his others.  It follows fifty-something professor Jack griffin as he goes through a mid-life crisis while dealing with his daughter’s wedding, the death of his parents, and the struggles in his marriage.   I loved the uplifting ending.

 

The Geography of Bliss – Eric Weiner, a National Public Radio correspondent, travels the world visiting such places as Holland, Switzerland and Iceland to discover why people who live there are so happy.  This was fun to read and felt like a travel book written by David Sedaris.

 

Born to Run – After acquiring yet another running injury, the writer travels to the Copper Canyon area of Mexico to discover the distance running secrets of the mysterious Tarahumara Indians.  This book is part adventure story and mostly an inspirational account about the joys of long distance running.

 

A Moveable Feast – I read this book on my trip through the Pacific Northwest, and loved this memoir about Hemingway’s early days in Paris.  He was deeply in love with his first wife and though poor he was also in love with literature and writing.  I loved his descriptions of Paris and the lively people who lived there at that time including his good friend F.Scott Fitzgerald.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2011

 

1)    The Paris Wife (Paula Mclain)

2)    In the Garden of the Beasts (Erik Larson)

3)    The Invisible Bridge (Julie Orringer)

4)    The Leftovers (Tom Perrotta)

5)    Following Atticus (Tom Ryan)

 

 

The Paris Wife –This was my favorite book of fiction this year.  The author brought to life the first marriage of Ernest Hemingway and his life in Paris in the 1920’s.  Mclain does an excellent job of showing the development of a great writer and the dissolution of a strong marriage.  Hemingway seemed to have it all in those days, the beginning of a literary career, a beautiful wife who enjoyed doing all the same adventures, and a newborn son, and still he gave it away to enjoy his celebrity and to focus solely on his writing career.

 

In the Garden of the Beasts – I could not stop reading this nonfiction work about the American ambassador William E. Dodd, who moved to Berlin just as Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power.  Dodd could see first hand the insanity and the danger of the Nazi’s, and he was unable to get the state department to see his side until it was too late.  Larson is one of my favorite nonfiction writers.  He knows how to tell a story.

 

The Invisible Bridge – Julie Orringer set out to tell a fictional story about her father, a Hungarian Jew, who studied architecture in Paris in the late 1930’s.  The character she created falls in love, has a child and when World War ll breaks out, he escapes France and travels back to his home. The was about two hundred pages too long, but impossible to put down.

 

The Leftovers – Perrotta has created a clever scenario in which millions of people have mysteriously disappeared in a rapture-like occurrence.  He has created a suburban neighborhood with residents that must now somehow keep living their lives despite such a monumental tragedy.  This book is funny, touching, exciting and sad.

 

Following Atticus – This well-written memoir tells the story of an overweight newspaper writer and publisher who takes in a puppy.  Together they form a strong friendship by climbing many of the White Mountains in New Hampshire.  The author tells his story with humor, and it’s touching and exciting at the same time.

 

 

2012

 

1)    11/22/63 (Stephen King)

2)    Wild (Cheryl Strayed)

3)    This is How You Lose Her (Junot Diaz)

4)    Elsewhere (Richard Russo)

5)    Canada (Richard Ford)

 

11/22/63 – Stephen King has written one of the all-time great time travel stories.  It follows Maine HS English teacher Jake Epping who has discovered a way to travel back to Dallas shortly before the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  He figures if he can stop the killing then all sorts of good things will follow. What he didn’t take into consideration is that he would meet the love of his life.  Should he stop the assassination and maybe stop our involvement in the Vietnam War, or should he live out his days happy with the woman he loves?  I couldn’t stop reading this book.

 

Wild – I read this book on our trip to Zion National Park.  It was a perfect book to read after hiking all day. The memoir follows the author on her quest to hike the Pacific Coast Trail, which is over 1,000 miles long.  I loved the hiking aspect of this book, but what I loved the most was how Strayed was trying to become a better person and overcome her heroin addiction.  This book had everything, humor, sadness and epiphany. It was the best-written book I read all year.

 

This is How You Lose Her – Junot Diaz writes in a creative mixture of Spanish, English and American pop culture.  This is a collection of linked stories primarily following Yunior, a Dominican-American from New Jersey as he grows up from his days as an adolescent to his thirties when he’s attempting to become a writer.  It was funny and at times tragic, and I liked Yunior even though most stories I’d be shaking my head at his brazen male chauvinistic stupidity.

 

Elsewhere – Richard Russo’s first memoir is a success. This is not your typical memoir that follows the author’s life from point A to Point B.  This is a memoir that tells the story of Russo and his clingy mom who hovers over him from birth till the day she died.  Sad and funny at the same time.

 

Canada - The first half of this book was pure poetic storytelling. It’s told from the point of view of Dell Parsons and it’s about his parents who rob a bank in Montana in the early 1960’s.  Dell is a tragic character, and you can’t help but care about him. You even care about his two hapless parents.  The second half of the book drags a bit, but read this book to study how good sentences are put together.

 

An Interview with John Patrick Shanley By Jack Rightmyer

An Interview with John Patrick Shanley
By Jack Rightmyer

John Patrick Shanley believes he was born with the ability to write strong dialogue.  “You can’t teach that,” he said in a recent phone interview from his home in Manhattan.  “You can learn some techniques to focus on hearing dialogue, but you either have the ability to write it or you don’t.”

Writing good dialogue has served Shanley well as he is regarded as one of our country’s major playwrights with over forty plays and screenplays to his credit.  He received the Pulitzer Prize for his 2004 play “Doubt” and an Academy Award for the screenplay of the  1987 film “Moonstruck.”

“My father came over from Ireland when he was twenty-four years old,” said Shanley.  “I was the youngest of five children.  My father’s brothers also came over from Ireland. Talk was good in our family.  It was musical and funny, and it’s no wonder I picked up a good ear for dialogue.”

On Wednesday Shanley will conduct the Burian Lecture at 8 p.m. in the Recital Hall located in the Performing Arts Center at the University at Albany’s uptown campus.  Earlier in the day at 4:15 p.m. he will conduct a seminar in the Standish Room of the Science Library.

“When I first began writing I worked as a poet,”said Shanley.  “After getting out of the Marine Corps I took a playwriting class at NYU, and when I began writing dialogue I knew I had found my form.”

As a student at NYU he received a lot of affirmation about his drama writing.  “After college I began working in the professional theater in New York and eventually I began writing my own plays.  It was the 1970’s, and it was an exciting time for theater in New York City.”

Shanley learned early on to branch out and write for both film and for theater.  “If you only write for film, production companies can stop you,” he said.

He knows an excellent writer who has been working on a screenplay for twenty years, and it’s never been produced.  “If you write for theater they can’t stop you,” said Shanley.  “There are numerous professional and amateur theater companies all around the country, and they’re always looking for good plays.”

He is currently working on a new play and a pilot for an HBO film.  “I keep my hand in both worlds because I’ve got two kids and I need to get them through college.”

Shanley feels people will always want theater.  “If the Mideast explodes and there’s no more oil then there will be no more movies,” he said, “but people will still put plays on.  They might put them on in their living rooms, but story is basic to what it means to be a human being.”

He not only wrote the 2004 play “Doubt,” but he also wrote and directed the 2008 film, which was nominated for an Academy Award and starred Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

“I began directing plays back in the 1980’s when I saw someone directing one of my plays so badly I thought I could do better,” said Shanley.

Today he enjoys directing almost as much as writing.  “When you direct for film you have a lot of support and an enormous crew,” he said.  “There are many people around to help you make sure your vision is realized. There’s also a lot of money riding on a film and producers want to make sure they’re not throwing their money away.”

Shanley also enjoys directing his plays.  “They’re much more intimate.  For the first three weeks it’s just you and the actors.  It’s sort of like an intense therapy session.”

He’s very proud of “Doubt,” the story of a nun who accuses a priest of molesting a child.  “I could not have written that play till I became an adult,” said Shanley.  “I needed a certain amount of maturity to create that work.”

He has used many incidents of his own life in his plays.  “I did attend some Catholic schools as a kid,” said Shanley,  “and there were some religious brothers and priests we thought seemed a bit odd, but I was never abused in any way.”

New York City also plays an important setting in much of his work.  “I’m so New York that I can’t see myself separate from it.  I grew up in the Bronx, lived for some time in Brooklyn and now I’m back in Manhattan.”

He’s lived a few months in the Caribbean when he was in the marines and in Los Angeles while working on films.  “But New York is my metaphor for the world.”

Shanley also works hard at putting some humor into his stories.  “I think my work would be very bleak without the humor,” he said.  “Life would be bleak without humor.”

His advice for someone who wants to write for theater is to sit down and write.  “When you have a play, put it on, produce it, get some actors.  There are great theaters in the Albany area.  I’ve been to Capital Rep before, and I liked it very much.”

Memorable Teachers

The Daily Gazette

Op-ed column: Memorable teachers inspired with firmness, friendship

Sunday, September 12, 2010
BY JACK RIGHTMYER
i

When I was a college freshman 1976, I liked to do a lot of things — run, read, write short stores, watch movies, dance with pretty girls — but I didn’t know what I’d do for a career. I was an English education major, but I didn’t really want to teach.

As a freshman, I had taken English classes with smart, snobby teachers who loved to use big words and look down at freshman. They seemed exasperated by our questions. They often looked at their watches and stifled yawns as they talked about the poetry of William Carlos Williams and the rhyme scheme of a sonnet.

It made me miss Brother Smith, my high school English teacher at Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons, who never looked at his watch or yawned when he was teaching.

It was in my sophomore year that I encountered Dr. Nagle and Brother Luke, who would both have a profound influence upon my life.

Teacher with a twinkle

I had heard about the eccentric Dr. Nagle before I took his class on romantic poets. “He’s funny,” said one of my English major friends. “He’ll have you laughing so much you won’t mind being in there for 50 minutes.”

Dr. Nagle liked to move around the room while he taught, and he had a mischievous twinkle in his eye, like he was about to pull a practical joke. He also knew his stuff, and he was enthusiastic to share his knowledge with all of us. He never played favorites. He liked us all. I took every Dr. Nagle English class I could for the next three years, “Spencer,” “Milton” and “Chaucer.”

Teaching didn’t seem like a job to Dr. Nagle. He asked us questions and got all of us involved. He had his own interpretations, but he wanted to hear what we thought of the stories and poems. I always felt safe to speak my mind in Dr. Nagle’s classes.

Dr. Nagle saw something special in each of us. He would eat his lunch outdoors in the quadrangle on pleasant days, often surrounded by dozens of students sitting around him, on a bench or the ground. He knew us, and we wanted to know him.

Once he asked me how my running was going, and I told him my times were slower than in high school.

“Well, keep running. It’s a great way to clear your head even if you get slower,” he said. “Have you ever read ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’ by Alan

Sillitoe? It’s one of my favorites.”

Throughout my last three years at college we’d often talk about books and trade a few back and forth, and when I graduated from college I knew that I wanted to be an English teacher like Dr. Nagle.

Stern meeting

I met Brother Luke the first weekend of my sophomore year. It was our first

Saturday night back at school, and the bars were hopping. Someone thought it would be fun to go up to the roof of our

dorm to look at the New York City skyline, 10 miles away.

It was well after midnight, and four of us were each enjoying one last cold beer, laughing and looking at the skyline with the prominent Empire State Building all aglow.

Someone accidentally knocked an empty beer bottle off the roof, and when it crashed seven floors below into the alley, we all laughed.

Maybe it was the beers, and maybe it was being 19, but as soon as we finished our beers, we dropped our bottles, one by one, into the alley and waited for the explosion of glass. We laughed and laughed until we heard the deep voice of Brother Luke: “Stop that right now and come with me!”

We sobered up in a second, and I had a sick feeling in my stomach as we followed Brother Luke down six flights to his room.

Brother Luke, the resident director of our dorm, was generally quiet and unassuming, but he didn’t look too pleased as he motioned for us to sit down on his sofa. He asked us our names, what dorm we lived in and where our hometowns were. He never yelled at us. “Did you throw bottles off the roof?”

We nodded.

“Do you realize you could have seriously hurt or even killed someone by doing something like that?”

Again, we nodded.

“Do you realize I could have all of you thrown off campus because of something this serious?”

We did. And I also knew if I was thrown out, my father would not have allowed me to return. I would probably have to go home, work through the fall and perhaps find another college in January.

“I expect to see all of you back here tomorrow at 2 p.m.” said Brother Luke, and we all walked out with our heads hanging low.

I prayed hard that night for another chance, and I don’t think I slept very well, but we all showed up at 2 p.m.

Brother Luke said he’d checked on the four of us, and found we’d never been in trouble before. “You did a very foolish thing last night,” he said. “You could have hurt people, and I have every right to kick you out of the dorms, but I’m going to give each of you one chance, because everyone makes mistakes and hopefully you’ll learn from this.”

We all nodded, and learned our punishment. Every Sunday we were to stop by Brother Luke’s room for a plastic bag and gloves, and spend an hour picking up trash around the dorm.

And that’s what we did every Sunday throughout September, October and November until one day we showed and Brother Luke said, “I think you’ve served your penalty.”

For the next three years I became quite close to him. I found out he was a writer, and we had some great talks about writing. He had disciplined me when I was a 19-year-old kid, but he had never judged me.

Saying thanks

Brother Luke died last August and Dr. Nagle died this past May, and I never had a chance to thank them for helping me at a time when I had no idea who I was or what I would do for the rest of my life.

Last week I began my 31st year as an English teacher, and every day I try to teach with the passion of Dr. Nagle. I try to demonstrate to each of my students that I care about them and want them to enjoy reading and writing as much as I do.

And every week I am faced with the need to discipline a student. Then I think of Brother Luke, who didn’t rant and scream and lecture, but disciplined me respectfully and he talked with me — not at me.

Dr. Nagle and Brother Luke are both gone, but a little of their spirit continues to live on within me and that’s the best way I can ever thank them.

Jack Rightmyer lives in Burnt Hills. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.