This series of posts on my teachers was inspired by Steven Dunn’s social media feed asking people to comment if they had a black teacher. My previous post was about Ms. Witwer, my 8th grade Social Studies teacher I had at Northwest Jr. High in Coralville, Iowa.
I will now turn to Mr. Regan, my first English teacher at Phillips Academy Andover. I had quite a few. I entered his classroom at the age of 13 and maintain that he was one of the best English teachers I had throughout my years as a student.
Lessons learned in 9th grade English from Mr. Regan:
- Some people really like bow ties
- Pleasure is sitting around a big table and talking about books.
- Asking questions is good.
- Greek myths are amazing.
- Some people will write better than you do, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy reading or writing.
- Old books can be great to read.
- There is nothing wrong with popular fiction.
- Some boys think that they know everything, but you know something too.
- Close reading is hard, but it can be fun too.
I will slightly pivot in that this is a rough draft excerpt from a work-in-progress, a memoir from my years at Phillips Academy Andover, and so while it does not detail the lessons learned from Mr. Regan, I do discuss his class:
Knowledge from Mr. Regan: Some people really like bow ties.
Four days a week from 12-12:50, I hurried up the stairs of Bulfinch Hall to Mr. Regan’s 9th grade English class. A magical and inspiring teacher, Tom Regan was beloved by all students. He swung his long limbs over a Raleigh bicycle and pedaled on campus wearing a jaunty cap that covered his bald head and showed off his distinct ears and pointy nose, and his tweed coat and bow tie were the stuff of prep school myth. The quintessential teacher found in books or films through the ages, he bore a vague resemblance to Bert in the Mary Poppins books. He was enamored with words and he conducted class as a band leader to the chortles, guffaws and glee of his pupils. We were his instruments playing the song of literature and co-conspirators in his secret. He revealed to us his delinquency: he had played the bass, but had been obliged to fake his way through band. The tap and shuffle of boots and shoes on the wooden floor, sliding chairs and bags slung over the backs of chairs, a huge dictionary on a platform in the back of the room, a musty smell of books and earth, and windows edged in white that tracked the seasonal color shift of trees, grass and leaves were all props for Mr. Regan, who would perch on a chair, lean against the window seat to grandly gesture, and spring around the class.
On the first day, a group of boisterous and loud white boys jostled inside and discussed all manner of athletics I had never heard of:
What is a lacrosse?
I had never seen this lacrosse. I had carefully studied the catalog prior to applying and all I knew was that it was a team sport. Whatever it was, I knew that I should absolutely not ask any details about it because clearly everyone else knew about it and should I reveal I didn’t, I would be marked by my peers as terribly ignorant, uncool, and whatever else that would prevent me from fitting in. Months later, I tried lacrosse as a spring sport and enjoyed the look and feel of the leather and wood, but I never felt comfortable with a hard ball whizzing by my head, which prompted no desire to catch it, but rather the inclination to avoid a thrown ball at all costs.
Knowledge from Mr. Regan: Pleasure is sitting around a big table and talking about books.
The students fit around a Harkness table, which is basically a long heavy wooden dining room table, thus, in its design, encourages conversation between students, the teacher acting as discussion facilitator. The boys quickly grabbed the places at the table that directly faced the chalkboard. I made my way to a chair, the least coveted space in the class. I would have to twist and crane my neck and move my chair to read the board. But writing on the board was a rare occurrence; almost all of class was spent in discussion. I once attempted to sit in the coveted place with a view to the board, but a few words from the boys intimidated me and I promptly slunk back to my seat. I recall that it felt strange to try to take the seat with the better view, but stranger still to have acted in such a bold way, with such bad manners as I should not have dared to assume that I could sit with a good view of the board, and that the boys should not only claim this place. I had logically deduced that there was no assigned seating, but yet I never sat where they did. A seat at the table requires people who usually occupy the seat, often bigger, shinier, whiter, and blissfully unaware, to move to another seat.
Habits are difficult to change.
This class was emblematic of most of the classes that followed over the course of four years. The Andover students were extremely motivated teenagers, eager to show off their academic prowess and bulldoze others down on their way to grabbing the golden ring of private university admission tickets—a group not to be trifled with. We came to class having read and ready to perform, to question, to excel, to captivate. There was a willingness to debate and admire the beauty of the words, to share and to silence through brilliance. There was hesitation and applause. There was squirming, humility and sweating. Wit was admired. There were winners and losers.
Andover was relentlessly competitive. The only escape from competition was sleep, but upon awakening one had to compare how little or how much one slept. Yet, despite all of this, a class with an expert teacher and students who wanted to learn was freedom from the self-consciousness I had felt in junior high where academic ambition was often viewed as a pretension.
The class made the obvious completely transparent, but I was in a fog of astonishment. Many students came from homes and families deeply familiar with literary classics. They moved from one feeder school to the next, with parents and backgrounds that fostered a knowledge of the necessary requirements of an East Coast education. While I was one of a handful of readers at my old school, I was now in a class where almost every student reveled in reading and stories, and excitedly compared favorite books.
Knowledge from Mr. Regan: Asking questions is good.
I was intimidated, fearful that my well-worn library card and Iowa public school education had not prepared me, yet Regan was an excellent teacher and by the end of the term I became more confident about asking questions about whatever reading was assigned. Regan borrowed words from Middle and Old English; some boys were “knaves” or “rascals” and some girls “saucy wenches”, and he declared himself “verminous” and deftly moved about the table, all the while guiding the conversation.
Knowledge from Mr. Regan: Greek myths are amazing.
Many students had read The Iliad at their old schools prior to The Odyssey. (More on that in another section–loved the myths!) They had knowledge of Greek myths and gods, diagrammed sentences, and were comfortable writing in pen. My penmanship was a cross between lopsided cursive and print; I had only written in pencil; my vocabulary was limited, and while the reading became manageable as the term progressed, I was acutely conscious that I was leagues behind the others. As the year unfolded, I began to stay a few minutes after class for extra help to desperately try to learn grammar and when I faltered, nervously and I see now bravely, he assured me that I would be fine with or without knowing how to diagram a sentence.
To myself, no matter how much I did not understand, I declared that I would never quit. My pride was at stake. I was representing my family, myself, my dreams of belonging, and where I was from: Iowa. I couldn’t even tell anyone I was from Iowa, because if and when I did, they confused it with Idaho or Ohio, or made fun of the state. Prior to Andover, I had no idea that Iowa was viewed in such a peculiar light.
What was wrong with Iowa?
Knowledge from Mr. Regan: Some people will write better than you do, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy reading or writing.
When he read out loud Mary’s sentence, who wrote with acute literary precision, when Lane analyzed with deft insight, and others made connections in the text that I could only follow, but never add to, I concluded that whatever idea I had about my own ability to read and write competently was my own invention. I had never used a semi-colon; students were writing paragraph long sentences with multiple semi-colons; this, in itself, I reasoned, was why I would never again ascend to the top of the class. Yet English class became my refuge. Disembodied I could live in these times and places, imagine and become a character or watch the ones I loved and merge with their actions until I too was there, complete and whole. Regan’s class introduced the practice of close reading, the jazz and rhythm of seeing the words in a myriad of configurations, the beautiful and brutal task of reading as a way of discovery.
Knowledge from Mr. Regan: Old books can be great to read.
My strongest recollection of reading Great Expectations was learning the definition of the word “countenance”. The idea of a person’s face, expression, or as a verb of what one accepts correlated with the Asian concept of face or saving face. The comportment expected as an Andover student was both foreign and familiar—there was what we were to stand for, what we were to be, and there was failure. Shame. Disgrace. Pip’s journey and desire for status and Estelle’s love would foreshadow my own yearning for acceptance and the hopeless adolescent crushes that would ensue over the next four years. By the end of the term, I occasionally raised my hand, and could follow the pace of the conversation without getting lost.
Knowledge from Mr. Regan: There is nothing wrong with popular fiction.
For student choice reading I chose The Bastard by John Jakes. A friend down my hall had the historical fiction series on her bookshelf, but I had bought the book one Saturday at the Andover bookstore along with Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the former due to the TV miniseries, the latter because I liked the cover art. Cool pictures of women. I had read Herland, an early feminist 20th century novel right after buying it, so I brought The Bastard to class, wholly unaware of the difference between popular and literary fiction, between high and low art, and therefore, how this choice marked my social, economic, and intellectual background as profoundly crass, illiterate, déclassé. Students steeped in a literary reading tradition have an unfathomable advantage over others as the validation of specific stories and narratives gives people a mandate to rule, to behave with authority, to operate and conduct themselves as ruthlessly knowing and superior—in their minds, to the misery of the rest. Stories were written for them and about them. I was, in effect, an interloper to the narrative without a story and did not understand I would have to create my own.
One of the boys scoffed: “You picked that because you saw it on television.” Television: the absolutely lowest of the low of any media form. One may clandestinely watch television, but certainly one never admits to being influenced by such a thing; one must never be swayed by such a populist medium!
It was true. I had watched and enjoyed the TV miniseries.
This had reduced me once again. My lack of narrative understanding meant that this usually meant I imagined myself as someone popping in from the movie Oliver wearing gray and brown rags and singing, or maybe sweeping and doing some kind of dance number from Mary Poppins. Even my stories of poverty and displacement were not informed by what I had witnessed and seen as a child in Korea, or that I had actually experienced, but were instead supplanted by bold images of people who bore no resemblance to me moving across the screen.
By now, I was more savvy. One never told the truth at Andover. One might attempt authenticity, but one absolutely never divulged what one truly felt, did, said, or believed. Too many consequences. The entire scenario was no longer about book choice, but survival, and so I responded: “No, I didn’t. That’s not why I picked it.”
The cute smart white boy did not believe me. He shook his head.
I would not believe me either. But I refused to surrender. Asking a Korean American child to surrender who was raised in Iowa by a father who had lived through the war and a mother from the pineapple plantations? I was many things. But. I. Was. Not. A. Quitter. And. I. Would. Never. Surrender. To. This. Guy. Period. EVER. EVER. EVER.
I was taken back to being six years old when I farted during story hour and the teacher stopped reading and demanded that the person who farted confess and apologize. I refused. People nudged me. The teacher stared. I refused. She waited. I didn’t say anything. It was probably the longest five minutes anyone had experienced. There was no way I was going to apologize for farting in front of the whole class just like there was no way I was going to admit to this guy that I had seen the mini-series.
Knowledge from Mr. Regan: Some boys think that they know everything, but you know something too.
I had watched the mini-series in Iowa which effectively served as a long television commercial for the book. How else did one learn where to find books without asking the librarian? Alarmed, I realized that I should absolutely never admit to having watched a miniseries or TV show associated with a book ever-ever-ever.
This included Roots by Alex Haley. My whole family had watched the TV series. While everyone across America watched Roots, it was clear that no one from Andover did and if one admitted one did it was probably only kosher to do so in a class that covered the history of American slavery. And well, there wasn’t one. So yeah, that didn’t come up ever.
What did this mini-series watching make my family? Did these people see it? I was afraid to ask. Everyone I knew in Iowa had seen Roots. I loved this book. I lugged it to church bell choir practice and read it during youth fellowship dinner rather than talk to my peers about God. I worried: what else had I read that had a TV show or movie or miniseries attached to it? Not only am I not a good reader, but I am reading the wrong thing? It was disconcerting.
Why didn’t I know any of this?
People pulled books from their backpacks and set them on the table. The cute smart white boy and his friend both chose to read Watership Down by Richard Adams. I had already read it. I tried to pull my book closer to the edge of the table; I wanted to crawl under the table. There were snickers. Regan did not laugh, took my choice seriously, and I went back to my dorm, and enjoyed every pulpy juicy second of the book. I got my first 5 or A in English on an in-class writing exercise, a paragraph that summarized the themes of our chosen book.
Knowledge from Mr. Regan: Close reading is hard, but it can be fun too.
Yet while my sheer perseverance was laudable, my comprehension remained perfectly average, if not below the Andover standard. I was baffled by the assigned poem Ode on a Grecian Urn by Keats and went down the hall to ask my friend about it, the one who had the John Jake series on her bookshelf.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“This is about the pictures on the urn,” she said, perusing the poem.
“Really? How did you know that?”
“That’s what it says. Look, it’s the people in the scene what did you think it was?” she laughed.
“I don’t know.”
“Look at the title!”
“Oh. I just didn’t get it,” I sheepishly admitted.
Close reading, even of the title, eluded. I guess I had better read the title. Who knew? Had I known that Keats was a consumptive romantic who was never able to be with the one he truly loved, I might have paid more attention, but such authorial details were not supplied, as this was the era of the text, the reader’s response reigned supreme. A TV miniseries about the poet’s life? Would this have ensured my engagement?
Yes, but I would have never admitted it.
Mahalo, Mr. Regan, for making English literature come alive, for providing a safe harbor for a 13 year old Korean American girl from Iowa, for letting me know that I had worthy observations and for introducing me with grace and humor to the world of reading, literature, and the possibilities of the written word.