Memorable Teachers

The Daily Gazette

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

Sunday, September 12, 2010

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.