“Who are you and where are you going?”
Answering the two-part question was the first assignment for sophomores taking Mr. Nichols’ English class at Kickapoo High School. I was rather intimidated by the task in front of me. What 16-year old boy knows who they are? But as I put my thoughts on paper, I was surprised to start learning about myself, little by little. As for where I was going, that answer was quite simple. A one-sentence paragraph, “I am going to play baseball for the Kansas City Royals.”
When the paper was returned, a red C- was circled at the top. My pulse tripled and I thought I was going to be sick to my stomach. I did not feel I deserved to be in his class. My worst fears about teenage me were confirmed: I wasn’t good enough. I stayed after school to see what I did wrong. I can still hear his velvet-smooth bass voice in my ears. “Mr. Bryan, I have no doubt you will one day play for the Royals, but you didn’t give equal weight to the two parts of the question. Keep writing, Mr. Bryan. You will learn.”
In Mr. Nichols’ class, we read books and we wrote essays. His three-word writing mantra: “Clear. Concise. Complete.” Side note: He also taught speed reading. With each passing month I read slower. It was a gift. Back to the story. Thanks be to God, Mr. Nichols’ phone number was listed in the phone book. I can only assume he didn’t have caller ID. For every single essay, I called him. I asked question after question after question. He often replied to my questions with questions which was absolutely infuriating at the time. But it helped me continue to think and learn more about me.
“May I speak to Mr. Nichols?” is how I started every phone call.
“This is he,” was his consistent reply. Before year’s end, he called us and tested our phone etiquette and grammar. Every time someone calls and asks to speak to me, I think of Mr. Nichols when I reply. When I discover that they’re a telemarketer, I just hang up and don’t feel too bad. I think Mr. Nichols would hang up, too.
In his class we read so many books, Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm and Of Mice and Men and even one baseball book — The Chosen. He once told me that he re-read the assigned books every year, often reading them from cover to cover in one sitting. So, I decided to try it. The next book assigned was A Tale of Two Cities. By this point, my speed reading skills had tanked. I had to be among the slowest readers he’s ever had. It took the majority of a Sunday and a few hours into early Monday, but I did it.
In Mr. Nichols’ class, we had to answer questions out loud about what we were reading which is how I thought my life was going to end. I could almost see the headline, “Sixteen-year old has heart attack in English class when asked to speak in front of others.” But he wanted us to find our voices, to always be thinking, and to learn how we best express ourselves.
I think it was the night after the final that about a dozen of us went to TP his house. Destruction of private property is just one way 16-year old boys express affection. He was completely prepared for our visit and welcomed us inside. He offered us food and drink and then extended the fun.
“We should call someone’s parents,” he said with a mile-wide smile.
I volunteered my number immediately. I think Mom answered the phone.
“Is Ethan there?”
We were stone silent in the background.
“Mrs. Bryan, there has been some activity taking place at my house tonight and I would like to visit with Ethan first thing tomorrow morning. Will you please pass along my message? Thank you.”
He hung up and we laughed and laughed and laughed. When I got home, one of my friends had to help explain to my parents that it really was just a joke.
In 2012, my family moved back to Springfield after living in Kansas City for a little over a decade. It was the same year my first book published, a book full of stories about the Kansas City Royals. Thankfully, Mr. Nichols’ phone number was still in the phone book, so I called and asked if we could meet for lunch.
We talked about books and writing and poetry and he filled me in on his life over the past 20 years. As we parted ways in the parking lot, he gave me a hug. “I am so proud of you,” he said.
“I had a good teacher,” I said.
“I had the best students.”
It should come as no surprise that Dead Poets Society is one of my favorite movies. Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, is a passionate English professor who inspires students to think and helps a shy student find his voice. For most people, Dead Poets Society is just a movie. Those of us who were blessed to take Mr. Nichols’ class think otherwise. We learned from a real-life Mr. Keating and were pushed to grow, to ask questions, to learn about ourselves and this phenomenal world in the process. We also found an advocate, a mentor, and a friend.
There is only one appropriate way to close.
O captain! My captain!